Arachne. No. 2
The Lure of the East
The Author Believes that people in the West could become conscious of what they lack by reading his introduction to the Hindu doctrines. I have no quarrel with his exposition of the doctrines. It is probably a sound, clear and correct description of those doctrines. His intention to describe them sympathetically from the inside rather than to translate them literally into Western terms has everything to recommend it. And his criticism of professional Orientalist erudition, of theosophy and of all naturalist approaches to religion is both valuable and acute.
The first two parts of the work consist, however, of a criticism of the Western stand-point in religion and philosophy which appears to me both questionable and dangerous. The author starts indeed from the peculiar assumption that there is only one kind of metaphysics; and that all other beliefs are due either to a sentimentalisation of metaphysics, such as religion, or to the naturalistic bias of our Greek habits of mind. On the whole he displays a quite unreasonable prejudice against Western civilisation. He dislikes its unstable character, the continuous quest for new ideas and the growing egalitarianism of our society. As to the first two points, he only states his dislike; as to the third he has a vein of argument; egalitarianism is unsound because human beings are unequal. This we must grant. But he believes that it follows that we must have an hereditary caste system. As if a caste system were not equally unsound for the simple fact that the known inequalities of human beings have never run parallel to any known caste system. The latter rides as roughshod over the inequalities of men as an egalitarian society.
These, however, are minor points. His main thesis concerns the character of metaphysics. He believes metaphysics to be something that it apprehended by intellectual intuition (pp. 116-7). It is a spiritual doctrine of an ultimate synthesis, concerned with the Universal. This ultimate synthesis transcends all individual points of view; it combines them all and it is in the last analysis inexpressible (p. 158). It seems to be a state of ultimate spiritual awareness in which 'one is two and two is one' and all differentiations are reconciled in the one. To embrace all possible states as the principle embraces all its consequences is the state of yogi, the real metaphysical realisation (p. 282). The highest Principle is both personal and impersonal and everything is resolved in the unity of a superior synthesis (p. 224). This theory is in fact the description of a very important and very basic experience. From the East it was carried to Greece and taken up by Plato and other philosophers, although the author does not seem to know this. He merely remarks that Aristotle and the schoolmen showed a rudimentary understanding for such metaphysics (p. 138). He would like his readers in fact to believe that these heights of Eastern thought were never reached by Western thought and that, when they were approached, Western thinkers were prevented by their innate lack of talent from understanding them and had to drop them very soon.
He reinforces this strange belief by his definition of metaphysics. 'To oppose knowing and being ... is the negation of all true metaphysics' (p. 169); and 'to men who are metaphysicians by temperament, naturalism . . . only appears as an aberration' (p.43); and again 'non-dualism . . . alone is genuinely and exclusively metaphysical in its essence.' (p. 155)What he does say is in fact an identification of one specific doctrine with 'metaphysics' He follows from this identification that all thought which rejects this doctrine cannot be meta-physical thought. How far the author is willing to go in his narrow-minded dogmatism is indeed shown by his statement that 'heterodoxy and absurdity are really synonomous' (p. 191). The kind of 'absurdity' he means is page 27 illustrated by his argument against atomism on Even the most rudimentary acquaintance with logic would have shown to him that the argument is not a proof but a begging of the question and that it does therefore not in the least establish the;absurdity' of atomism.
The author is in fact naive. Unfortunately all he knows about Plato is that Plato was a subtle dialectician (p. 40). If he knew more about Plato he would have realised that for instance the doctrine of dharma described by the author on p.211 corresponds exactly with Plato's theory of justice (dikaiosune) and that that wearisome speculations of the Timaios are concerned with just the same sort of idle 'cosmology' or theory of the Universe as the author describes on p.214. And since the influence of Plato was very considerable—Platonism does indeed represent one half of all Western thought—it seems naive, to the present reviewer, to maintain that these heights of metaphysical doctrine were never explored by Western philosophers.
These heights were not only explored by the West; they were eventually even criticised. All criticism is of course heterodox; and therefore, according to the author both absurd and unmetaphysical. But since I do not share this strange dogma, I must be permitted to maintain the superiority of Western philosophy over the Hindu doctrines as expounded by the author. It is certainly true that the Hindus made a startling discovery once, when they developed their metaphysic. And it is also true and generally accepted that the Greeks owed this discovery to the Eastern world. (The author thinks scholars deny this and devotes therefore the first part of his book to a futile polemic against nine-pins he has set up.)
But whereas the Indians stopped at this discovery, the Europeans have examined it. Owing to their restlessness which the author naturally enough despises, they have expanded or criticised or denied these doctrines. They found that these doctrines did not take the natural world sufficiently seriously; they discovered that they lacked in moral sense; they finally even laid bare the questionability of the method of 'intellectual intuition' (Kant)* and worked out that a good many inferences on which it was based were either tautological or false (mathematical logic). No wonder that the author finds it necessary, if he wishes to uphold the Hindu doctrines, to deny that Western thought is real thought at all. I fail to understand how any serious person can be sufficiently naive to accept the proposed identification of metaphysical thought with the Hindu doctrines. The best that can and has been said of these doctrines is that they are one metaphysical doctrine and that they should be evaluated as such.
This naivety, however, surely is not genuine. It is rather an attempt at a rationalisation: the author, for reasons unknown, is dissatisfied with the present state of Western thought. He believes that a radical remedy is required and therefore, for reasons also unknown, turns towards the East. For reasons unknown, the East has indeed little evidence for persuading anybody that it holds a promise of spiritual truth. It may do so; but all the material evidence at least obliges us to believe the contrary. When I suggested once to one of my Indian friends that I would like to visit India in order to study its mode of life, I was told that there was only one mode of life: to imitate the West as much and as far as possible. The author then has turned to the East in his quest for spiritual satisfaction: and since his choice of the East is quite irrational, he has endeavoured to rationalise it by elaborating the weird dogma that the East alone has been capable of metaphysical thought. We have to take cognisance of this choice; we ought to despise however the naively thought out rationalisation. And since this reviewer is more interested in truth than in spiritual satisfaction he will himself continue to walk along the arduous path of critical thought indicated by the tradition of the West. And to all his friends who seem to feel strongly tempted by the lure of the East he would call out what Goethe called out to the young men who were about to read the story of the unfortunate Werther: 'Be a man and do not follow him!'
New Attitudes in New Zealand Poetry
The Appearance of a first volume from two of Arachne's most important regular contributors is, for the magazine, a landmark. It means that the view of poetry implied in this work will now be impressed more forcibly on the New Zealand audience. Although Witheford and Campbell are as different as poets can be, their position in the history of New Zealand poetry has similarities. It will be necessary for the reviewer to trace this position briefly, even though this is not the most important point to make concerning the poetry.
I am of course referring to the problem of writing in a largely British tradition at so great a distance from Britain. The former generation found the solution of treating the history and scenery of New Zealand in the same way as the contemporary British poets dealt with new subject matter; this was made simpler by the fact that the techniques of the thirties were largely designed for the purpose of dealing with new subject matter.
Baxter's poetry was not infused with this spirit, nor with the idea of being a species of poetic civil servant, which it implied. Mr Baxter however is attracted by many of the techniques of the thirties and, what is more, is a thorough-bred moralist, which restrained him from altogether breaking with the New Zealand localist tradition.
The break is only complete with the appearance of these two volumes, with their unusual rootlessness and without memories to provide a local backdrop—only a memory of death. Nor is there any home or any reference to the daily experience that clutters up life. One may call the volumes 'unsullied' by all history and social matters. Their purity excludes also, for the first time, any evidence of local impacts. It is only the cold undedicated consciousness of beauty in both books that hints at their land of origin by showing its spiritual contours.
* * *
Mr Witheford must take credit for being the first New Zealand poet able to express his deepest experience through the medium of hard abstract thought illuminated by the poetic imagination. Although the moralists have often attempted this, no New Zealander had yet achieved the level of subtlety and the striking and accurate phrasing of such poems as O ache to turn to words or Now I begin to know, nor the cerebral virtuosity of such lines as these:
This is the trysting place, its certain signs—
The congealed sea, the bones of ancient fire
And in the ruined cliffs a shallow cave.
Only a superior intellect can range symbols with this clarity and economy and with sufficient strength in the imagination not to disturb the apodictic flow of the verses. Such vivid thought directs the spiritual explorations throughout the volume. It is driven along by a number of recurring images rooted in the deepest experience, but used simply as parts of the pattern of the poet's spiritual development. Such images—some are quoted above—have the disadvantage of being rather generalised, but this is often outweighed by the evocative phrasing. The success of this sort of verse often hangs on the precarious question of the evocativeness of a phrase. It becomes like tightrope dancing, or so it seems to me, and there may, in the long run, be no alternative for the poet than a fuller treatment of the experience itself. However the intensity of the quest, and the joy of the discovery save this volume.
The book falls naturally into three consecutive groups, the first, groping part ending at p. 20, and the second small intermediate group at p. 26. In the last part the pace quickens and the poems become thoroughly interconnected; the style comes close to the hymnic, and the volume ends in a strong affirmation.
The inclusion of the first part of the volume is, through what it reveals, an act of courage; the attitudes of these poems are manifestly held in contempt by the poet of the later work. There is an obvious spiritual confusion here, the centre-piece being, I imagine, the Baude page 29 lairean statue of Happiness (p. 13), while the chronicles of dejection form the background. From this ruthless statue the road is open to almost any spiritual progress; with Mr Withe-ford dejection becomes identified with moral impurity; the struggle is then waged as one against impurity to which, I think, all desire for opposites is held to belong.
In the second group there is a somewhat sudden separation of the poet's self from this earlier identity. This is described rather beautifully:
The tempest that drives on his limbs I hear
As pastoral music in Arcadia.
His Questing hands, his dreams,
His onward driven steps,
As drifting clouds in summer pass before me.
During this period the poet can contemplate both his identities and easily move from the one to the other. The newly found and higher form of the self has somehow dragged the lower one along on its quest, as is shown in this tine address to the creative spirit:
Die and I would not grieve
For you, nor for the pride
Laid upon your grave
As once upon my mind.
The hymnic section contains the illumination, which appears to have something final, through its concurrence at the end of the book. In fact of course, it is no more than another intermediate stage, and was clearly felt to be so at the time of writing. It is rather, perhaps, a beginning. The poems are beautiful because they have grown out of a great discovery. It is, however, a dangerous one, as the ancient strengths which are revealed to be behind the scheme of the universe, but only direct us when we will, have to be served in a spirit of sacrifice, which, on the face of the words, means a spirit of entire non-activity.
This is not a quibble; it is the essential question: the poet has eliminated conflict, and in the service of the giant powers appears to have nothing to do. Small matter, one may say. Yet this dullness and non-activity is precisely the starting point of the quest—i.e. it existed at the time before the poet had ever noticed the cruel statue of Happiness in the marsh.
Yet the hymnic part of the volume is the most powerful, one great advance being the concreteness of the visions in some of the poems (O coal black horses and Alone). The most remarkable conception, intellectually, is that the 'giant powers' suffer pain through the corruption of the world and have to await the time when they are 'heeded'. There is still the personal pain due to a consciousness of corruption, at the back of the hymns:
Your patience bears the ruin of the world,
A grain of salt upon a seagull's wing.
It is part of this philosophy that the giant powers are only made visible by the existence of death and destruction. The point is not, as some readers appear to have thought, that the poet is in love with death, but that the 'patterns of glory' (or the giant powers) have arisen from 'the rhythms of mortality' as the poet clearly says (p. 34). This then is a balanced idea of the universe in which beauty and destruction are inseparably one. At the same time this volume is spiritually only a beginning, as I pointed out, and poetically the occurrence of central phrases that are clearly insufficiently plumbed still mars the best verses: 'travailings of the worlds' (p. 35). This is the kind of phrase one only uses before the beginning or after the end.
* * *
The same general symbols, as untainted with the everyday world, and based upon as narrow a range of experience as Mr Witheford's in his Shadow of the Flame occur in Mr Campbell's songs of the disasters of the sun. In these poems the forgotten terrors of desolation revive; the disinherited boy finds much to admire in an adamant world. The splashed sun illumines the land; on the stony crag the hare and the goat leap and the mountaineer dies. Forgotten loneliness hides in a corner while graceful splendour wastes itself in a thousand performances. And this hardness is life, but as there is also death there flows the sweeter pain of sympathy and gentleness. There is so much grief, so many tears: Man turns to stone or stares himself blind in the sun.
The first verses written by Mr Campbell occur, it seems, in the second section of his work, called "Love Poems". The pain in these poems has everywhere turned into small smooth stones. Mr Baxter has said, very fittingly: "There is no relationship". The love poems page 30 do not imply, any more than Mr Witheford's published verse or Mr Sargeson's early stories, a relationship, but it goes further than that: There is not even direct experience. The grief itself is not expressed: the pride, the very beauty of that which caused the grief, would prohibit that. The pain becomes hardened in defined, torturing images and they become, with time, smoothly polished, and then these images grow into one of Mr Campbell's early love poems, with a show of decorativeness and a view of love as being merely ritual. As long as there is growth towards such a decorative and ritual element from the state of pain, this is remarkable, but in some of the poems a danger is apparent of these things being pursued for their own sakes. Not too often; the pain still trembles, for instance, in the apparently ritualistic "Warm heart, warm mouth" (p. 23). Deceptively stinging is also a line like this one:
Lay cool as a stone against her dress.
The Yeatsian influence has been most fruitful technically, in teaching how the hardness of splendour can be shown through the cadence of the verse. The style grown from this adaptation combines sweetness with a division of the stanza into brief, economical periods, in other words, to develop a modernist form of expression through the pure song tradition rather than through the blank verse tradition.
The carry-over of Yeatsian metaphysic through certain attitudes and phrases was less appropriate, and mars accuracy:
A piece of bronze, more air than bronze
This leads directly to philosophies with which Mr Campbell would not agree.
The best of the Love Poems are, I think, V (Lie on the sand, my dazzling driftwood) and VIII (At the great waters edge). These poems somehow strike deeper levels than the others. V strikes at the spiritual essence of these women with effortless insight; in VIII there is unfettered and profound self-expression. As the themes unfold the entirety of the poet's personality resounds, instead of a selected part of it; the result is a few novel and remarkable poems of far more importance than the general run.
The occasion for the Elegy was a stormy night on a fruitfarm when the poet remembered a friend who died on the mountains. The primeval force of the landscape around the fruitfarm blends with the landscape in which the mountaineer died. The inhuman strength of the Cromwell Gorge (location of the fruitfarm) is even, one may say, a central theme as much as the death: the mountaineer also was grand, serene and inhuman, in contact with those hard animals of speed, as much as the gorge. It is also possible to see a bridge between the mountaineer and the women. He, too, was admired as a ritual. He too was lost. However, the distinctive and appealing quality of the Elegy is that we do not only have these smooth pebbles, the images of pain, but that there is a strong directness:
Dear head, struck down; bright flesh
That made my black night sweet
All bruised and bleeding
The concluding poem is most remarkable in this way and also 'Driftwood'. But I find Reverie especially fine, as it moves in profounder regions than the rest of the Elegy, penetrating through the shell of the general philosophy of the book into the true motivation of these attitudes. I quote in full:
Sleep on, restless heart,
In the wild fruit-tree;
Be growth and all things sweet
Your love-brimmed reverie.
Sweetness at the root,
May the tree climb high;
Close against the sun
Let all its branches sigh;
Pride and glory lost
When hill-streams are dry:
—O lay to your wild breast
Wind's disconsolate cry.
This reminds of James Joyce's poetry in the abbreviated way in which the ideas are indicated. The sun is scorching the fruit trees; the rain will not come in time; the fruit will never ripen. The sweet fantasy and the agony of the fruit tree becomes an image of the death of the mountaineer and all beautiful things.
The great achievement of the Elegy is the sustained tone, the horror of the storm and the rain gripping the reader from poem to poem, page 31 all forms of desolation bound together in a sort of symphony and the images yet polished and careful, obviously long cherished.
The poems in the last section, although on a high level of competence, bring little that is new, after what has been said. They are objective poems, most of them, by far the best being the last, called The Return. The lines concerning the dead Dionysos are among the most beautiful in the book.
Like Mr Witheford, Mr Campbell has made a beautiful book out of that full, but shifting and untidy period of life called adolescence; while Mr Witheford pursued the peace of the spirit, Mr Campbell pursued the grace of the mountain animals. The great question, with New Zealand poets, in the past, has always been what they would do after adolescence. To this Mr Campbell's poems do not give a full answer. However, even if this answer is never found, Mine Eyes Dazzle can stand on its own with its remarkable qualities of rhythm and sound, with its portrayal of the world of storm and desolation, of the ritual of hard animal beauty, and especially, with its capacity to exalt a life into verse.
The Pegasus Press has shown great skill in matching the printing with the atmosphere of the poetry.
Refuge in Craftsmanship
Henry Moore's Delicate Lyre Birds Have flown from the front cover, their places being taken by an elegant Sean Jennett mandala. Tambimuttu had already left the editorial corner-seat; Richard March stays on and Nicholas Moore moves from associate to co-editor. John Heath-Stubbs, Jon Manchip White, Alan Curnow, and Elisabeth Cluer have poems which deserve the attention of any reader of verse, while, of the reviewers, Hugh Gordon Porteus, one of England's most remarkable younger poets, compares Pound and MacNeice in a way which is always engaging, frequently perceptive and not too often merely amiable.
Meanwhile the editorial of the new management states, somewhat apodictically, a new policy rather like a French garden. It is, one notices, not entirely in accordance with many poems in the volume, which retain the wild-flower style. The policy pretends to fit the conditions of 1950, opposite to those of 1940; like all such policies, it assumes a simplified idea of time and history. However it is interesting to see, from this editorial as well as other signs, that the emphasis has shifted from a large and universal style (1940) to a precise and limited one (1950). The editorial says:
'The "profound" stanzas full of high-flown, vague emotion and undigested philosophy are not likely to be the most successful ones.'
'What is needed is not so much the "inspired" poem as a renewal of style: first-class workmanship rather than the prophetic tone.'
Poetry London is less concerned here with the effusions of the Dylan Thomas school than with philosophical and occult poems or stanzas trying to state ideas in direct style. The problem of the individual or the artist in a society developing towards collectivism has been one of the chief subjects treated; there is no doubt that much dullness has been perpetrated on this topic.
In New Zealand it is difficult to have much sympathy with the remedy suggested in the editorial. The main problem here is not dull thinking coupled to wild inspiration, but a great deal of thinking coupled to a dead inspiration. To be not sufficiently solid or careful is a rarer vice. On the other hand one does feel some nostalgia for a society of a sophistication such that it can aim at style and perfection as chief pursuits. Here one is fortunate to be able to deliver the goods at all, even if they remain somewhat rough. Finesse cannot at present become a major preoccupation.
* The author apparently brushed aside the weighty arguments of Kant by one simple statement: 'intellectual intuition, the reality of which has been constantly denied by modern philosophy, which has failed to grasp its real nature whenever it has not preferred simply to ignore it'. (p. 117).