Internationally-acclaimed anthropologist and poet Michael Jackson travels his natal New Zealand, reflecting on the idea of origins. Visiting old haunts and old friends, he ponders the hold our histories have over us, and the enduring power of our first experiences in life. Jackson reflects on the ways we tell our life stories, write our national histories, assign value, allocate blame, and determine cause. His recurring theme is the tension between the forces that shape us and our freedom to take our destiny into our own hands.
Skillfully blending ethnography, history, philosophy, literature and personal reflection, he asks what it means to call a place or a time one’s own.
Although our lives may not transcend our origins, we seem to need to believe that this is possible, as in the myth of Maui who sought to return to the womb and be born again.
…exact, resonant and moving; beautifully wrought. Martin Edmond, Dark Night: Walking with McCahon.
Chapter Two: Braided rivers
Arriving in New Zealand by air, I am always struck by how exposed the landscape is to the elements. How buffeted by wind and rain. Crossing the South Westland coast, I caught glimpses of a fretful sea, black rocks and iron sand. And then, through scudding cloud, verdant hills, as if the greenness of the original forests, felled and burned to make way for English farms, had seeped into the denuded land like indelible ink, an ineradicable reminder of loss. Far below, the red roofs of farmhouses and shearing sheds appeared so random and solitary that I remembered my youth for its persistent sense of being in such a place on sufferance, of not belonging. At Christchurch airport, I passed people who looked as if they had mislaid valued possessions or missed their flights. Weather-beaten, anxious faces, hair tousled by the wind. And a curious reticence, as if voicing one’s thoughts could only make matters worse.
I rented a car and drove north through squalls of rain. Near Amberley, the weather cleared, and I pulled over to the side of the road to check my map. To the west were windbreaks of eucalypt and pine, with wind-combed grasses glistening in the sudden sun. How ironic that so many foreign species have flourished here – pinus insignis and macrocarpa from Monterey in California; brushtail possums and bluegums from Australia – while so many New Zealanders have felt the need to go abroad to find their niche. Ironic, too, that we still drive on the left-hand side of the road as if, in the antipodes, history has produced a society in which many things are, from a northern vantage point, back to front. And who could have foreseen that within two years the city I had just left would be in ruins and that I would read a press release in which a survivor spoke of cars ‘falling into holes and everything… upside down’?
I was twenty-three when I saw the East for the first time, coming from the sea, like Marlowe, to a place of ‘danger and promise’ where ‘a stealthy Nemesis lay in wait’. I spent a day in Bombay, drifting around the city and getting lost in the labyrinthine red light district around Falkland Road, locally known as the Kamathipura. Street after street was lined with cages in which frail girls, like birds, sold into slavery for the price of a pair of shoes or a tin roof, whispered and fluttered. Pimps pursued me at every turn. ‘You want jiggajig, Sah?’ ‘Sahib, Sahib, Sahib, you like leetle girl?’ ‘Sah? Yes, Sahib, I can do, Sahib?’ To escape the wheedling and pestering, I walked into a cinema and bought a ticket. Ushered into an upstairs seat, I found myself watching a film of the great Persian epic, ‘Sohrab and Rustam’. I had never before seen an Indian film. Although I couldn’t understand Hindi or read the Urdu or Malayalam subtitles, I was captivated by the music, and for months after leaving India I tried to recall one song in particular, a lifeline to a place to which I fantasized returning. Forty-five years later, having long forgotten the tune, I typed into YouTube the words ‘Sohrab and Rustam Hindi film’ on the off chance that the miracle of digital technology might help me retrieve what my mind had been unable to retain. I discovered that the vocal music for the movie had been pre-recorded by Lata Mangeshkar, perhaps the most famous playback singer in the history of Bollywood, and that the song that haunted me throughout the winter of 1963-1964 when I worked among the homeless in London, was called ‘Yeh Kaisi Ajab’. The song is banal, yet, watching the beautiful actress Suraiya lip-synch Lata Mangeshkar’s shrill and quavering vocals, I saw how this music and its setting could have enchanted me at twenty-three, much as Conrad’s Marlowe was enthralled when he first set eyes on the East. Music, more than any medium I know, has this power to carry one across space and time, reviving dormant memories, recovering lost connections. But memory is so notoriously mutable that it is never the past one returns to, but a version or illusion of it, and this sense that time is irreversible and the past irretrievable in its original form may either liberate us to live more completely in the present or drive us to despair.
On the winding road through Weka Pass, I was thinking of my first wife. At age fourteen, she was taken by ambulance to Christchurch Hospital over this road. Suspected of having rheumatic fever, she was hospitalized and placed under observation in a ward filled with senile or dying women. When her mother visited her five days later, Pauline was distraught. ‘Take me out of here, Mum,’ she cried, ‘take me out of here!’ Feverishly turning her head from side to side and throwing back the bed sheets, she begged her mother not to leave her. Noellie took her daughter home to Waiau for ten weeks’ bed rest. But something had changed. Pauline appeared to have lost any desire to go out into the world. She had been a champion swimmer; now she would not go near the baths. The previous summer, she had learned to drive. She now declared she had no interest in driving a car. She only wanted to see her horse, Rosie. With Rosie she felt in control.
Ten years after our marriage, when we were living in Palmerston North, Pauline began writing a children’s novel that allegorized her experiences before and after hospitalization. On the surface, Back of Beyond is the story of two children who become involved in unraveling the mystery of an attempted murder. But Pauline intended her book to recount, albeit obliquely, far more personal experiences. She began writing two years after undergoing radiotherapy and chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s disease. This devastating experience was a replay of the trauma she had suffered as a fourteen-year-old girl in Christchurch Hospital. Though in remission, she lived without certainty, as if at any moment the ground might give way beneath her feet. And this contrast between what it is like to take life for granted, as though one had all the time in the world, and what it is like to live as if every day might be one’s last, finds expression in the two very different protagonists of the story – a gauche and timid English boy and a rough, high-spirited New Zealand girl, brought together one summer on a high country station. In the solution of the crime lies the resolution of an existential mystery – how we may live with a sense of our vulnerability while drawing on our strengths, neither succumbing to our fear that the world is too much for us nor retrospectively seeing ourselves as heroic and virtuous, simply because we survive.
Beyond Waikari, the serrated and snow-streaked peaks of the Inland Kaikoura range became visible, and over the last few miles between Rotherham and Waiau, every bend in the road, every stand of pines, every farmhouse or fenceline was so familiar that by the time I approached 50 Leslie Street, where Pauline spent her childhood, I was beginning to imagine that she and her parents would be waiting for me there and wondering where in the world I had been for so long. I did not stop, but drove slowly past the timber mill that Pauline’s father had once owned and on toward the Mason River bridge where I parked under some willows, scrambled down the embankment and picked my way across the graywacke stones of the riverbed until I located the spot near the wooden foundations of the old bridge where my daughter and I had scattered Pauline’s ashes in the ice-cold water twenty-six years ago. I sat there with the sun on my face, inhaling the sweet smell of broom and the sour odor of dung in the cold air, the silence broken only by the trilling and lisping of a bird and an occasional passing car. Time hung fire. I was on my way back to Leslie Street after a long walk, and would return in time for lunch. Jack would be picking broad beans and digging spuds from his garden. Noellie would be slicing ham, setting the table, and pouring herself a home-brewed beer with lemonade. Pauline would be reading in her room…
Memories are like rain clouds. Just as a mountain range is needed for clouds to fall as rain, so the mind needs a familiar landscape, a piece of music, the smell of fennel, the taste of a petite Madeleine, if its hidden depths are to be revealed. So uncanny and surprising is this confluence of inner and outer worlds that we often have the impression that a landscape or valued object actually holds our past life in its hands, as insects are held in amber, or that past events remain perfectly preserved in our minds. But this flowing together of the debris of the past and what is now at hand is, like the confluence of two rivers, under constant revision. One day, it may seem as though the past is all we are, and that we merely echo events that have already occurred. Another day, it is as though there were nothing outside the present moment. Our entire existence, all that matters, is contained in the here and now.
I was watching the water, growing dizzy as it slipped by, the color of bottle glass, whorls where there were submerged boulders, an uprooted willow snagging the current. This image of a river took hold. I thought of the other rivers that flow into the Waiau – the Mason, the Doubtful, the Hope – and I recalled the M?ori tradition according to which there were once two Waiau Rivers, their adjacent headwaters in the Spencer Mountains. One was female (the Waiauuha), the other male (Waiau-toa), and they were lovers before they were rivers. When they were parted, they became turbulent water, forever clouded by tears.
A human life is like the course of a river – in this case, its snowfed chalky water braided by shingle banks as it works its way toward the sea. But can one map a life as one maps a river? Can we identify sources or trace origins as easily? Can we liken the influences that shape our lives to tributary streams? Do we wind up in a place that can be compared with an ocean? One might sketch such a map and outline a few contours, but the detail, the scale, is beyond the range of any cartographer. We cannot encompass all that makes us who we are, any more than we can fathom the extent of our freedom to refashion the raw material we begin with.
It must have been in 1933 or 1934, not long after he had gone into exile, that Walter Benjamin momentarily lost his immunity to involuntary memory. Sitting alone in the Café des Deux Magots in Paris, he suddenly glimpsed ‘with the force of an illumination’ the fateful links between his life and the lives of friends, comrades, chance acquaintances and lovers, as well as books and places. On a sheet of paper, Benjamin sketched a series of family trees or a labyrinth, bestowing a semblance of order on the ‘primal acquaintances’ that had revealed to him, over many years, new pathways and possibilities. Two or three years after his Paris epiphany, and having lost the scrap of paper on which he seemed to have found, like Theseus, a way through the labyrinth of his life, Benjamin was struck not only by the impact of others on his own life, but by the variousness of their destinies, and he wondered whether it would be possible to divine in such a disparate group any common thread or family resemblance.
Who has not, at some stage, contemplated the possibility of piecing together the story of his or her life, summing it up, as we say, as if, despite its twists and turns, its braided course, its oxbows and ancillary streams, a life can be recounted as a story? It is significant, I think, that Walter Benjamin lost the paper on which he drew a coherent diagram of his life, for this enabled him thereafter to indulge the illusion that everything that had befallen him could be connected, like the dots in a child’s puzzle book, disclosing a hitherto hidden form. I prefer a different image – suggested by the arcane term paralipomena. Strictly speaking, the Greek word paraleipómena designates things we leave behind, shelve or dismiss from mind, that yet accumulate as a kind of supplement or backlog to the stories we tell. Despite being unfinished and fragmentary, such deleted scenes, out-takes and afterthoughts capture moments when we see ourselves differently, as through the eyes of another. When we experience our past as if it were a previous incarnation. When we are visited by strange dreams, and imagine other lives – a road not taken, a rendezvous missed, a letter not answered, a stone left unturned. When we nurture the view that we have been thrown into this life by a quirk of fate, and that our true destiny will come later, or elsewhere, or with someone else. When we wait, harboring these unspoken thoughts, lost in a wilderness of vain conjecture and second guessing, asking ourselves over and over what would have happened had we gone down another road, if we had, to borrow Robert Frost’s compelling line, taken the road less traveled by.