Global Warming Defeated: Magic outpaces Science
Even while the juggernaut of a carbon tax rolls relentlessly on, there are clear signs that the planet has already been saved, and by other means.
As we all know cold has returned in massive snowfalls to the northern hemisphere, and rain and flood to the drying south, and this has occurred in the wake of an adjustment to the public emblems of our most important religious festival, Christmas. These emblems have a timeless ethnological history, and can be classified as a form of sympathetic magic of the homeopathic type, as categorized by Frazer in his classic work, The Golden Bough.
In the cold northern hemisphere, magic to influence climate has long been directed at ensuring the return of warmth (of spring and summer), while in the southern hemisphere (Africa, Australia) the fear which it serves to allay is of the non-return of rain (cf. Ma Ramotswe of 1st Ladies Detective Agency fame, and our own concerns with drought). Homeopathic magic to ensure the return of vegetable growth in Europe typically employed greenery that survives the winter months – fir trees, mistletoe, the red and green of holly – while in the south magicians splashed significant objects with water to encourage rain.
Now throughout the 20th century, the ritual Christmas colours were red and green, sympathetic to heat and verdancy. With hindsight it is obvious that this magic was conducive to global warming in both its aspects – to rising temperatures in both the northern and southern hemispheres, and lop-sidedly to drought and fire in the south. While somewhat higher temperatures may be welcome in the cold north (if you forget about rising sea levels), in the south, already rather too hot and dry, the continued practice in a transferred culture of an aspect of ritual that encourages fire and drought was potentially disastrous.
Nevertheless it was the north, not the south, that led the way in reversing what was unsuitable practice in the new circumstances of global warming, which it may have itself induced. In 2008, I spent the Christmas season in Ireland and England, and was surprised to find that the dominant colours of street and other public decoration had changed from the warmth of red and green to the chilliness of blue and silver/white, apparently by an unspoken action of communal solidarity in a novel situation of crisis. Blue and silver seemed rather hostile colours to display in a cold season, and I at first wondered if the change was a response to the recent exposé that Santa’s red suit derived from Coca Cola advertisements at the turn of the 20th century. But now, with the convincing return of extreme winter cold in the north, the truth is apparent: the switch to the new colours illustrates a still active uncanny human ability to work sympathetic magic, which is doing its ancient job. The new Christmas colours have been adopted in Australia also, and have served, outstandingly, to conjure water through their alternative symbolism of water, blue and crystal clear.
Frazer pointed out that magic is much closer to science than developed religion in that it acts directly on and through the material world and obeys invariable laws. Religion, by contrast, through worship and sacrifice invokes intervention by the gods, who may or may not comply. But religion usually retains elements of past magical practice, as one sees in the Christmas emblems. The triumph of science in Western civilisation has meant that the official response to a perceived crisis of heat and drought has not included prayer for cold or rain. Rather, under the religiose influence of Environmentalism, the advice of scientists, accepted as scientific by both people and governments, has in many ways been more like a religious appeasing of the gods. We are being asked to make admissions of guilt and sacrificial gestures of abasement and self-denial that bear no logical proportion to what “science” has declared to be the problem.
But intuitively people have known what to do, and magic has succeeded where science failed, if it was ever really science. The validity of scientists’ asseverations of climate change was accepted in Australia on the immediate evidence of relatively short-term heating and drying, without reference to the cycles within cycles of wet and dry of a hundred years and more to which our continent is subject, and which are not accessible to a lifetime experience. Against a pseudo-scientific program of sacrificial self-flagellation, sympathetic magic has won hands down. The global warming conferences can all be cancelled and the research moneys put to more useful purposes. Global warming is behind us, and once it gets too cold or too wet (which perhaps it has already) we can return to red and green at Christmas.
Addendum: The efficacy of sympathetic magic in bringing rain is documented in the history of the Maralinga nuclear tests. Before the first test, rangers were sent into the desert to remove aboriginal people from the affected area. One group of women and children managed to elude the rangers for days, outpacing on foot the men in their utility truck. When the latter were finally almost upon them, the aboriginal women performed a rain ceremony, and within hours a rain storm of such violence erupted, out of season, that the tests had to be postponed, the desert became impassable for the rangers’ truck, and the women moved out of reach.
( Previously published with minor differences in ISSA Review, Vol 10, No 1, 1911)
Eve Langley in Auckland
Eve Langley’s The Pea Pickers was on the syllabus of the Australian Literature course at the University of Queensland when I was a student in the early 1960s, and although I didn’t actually read it then, it stuck in my mind as a book I would identify with, as, like many other students in those days, I spent my university summer vacations in like work, mainly on the tobacco farms of North Queensland. But when it finally came into my hands some thirty years later I was decidedly unenthralled and abandoned it after only a few pages. I was irritated by not being sure of the sex of the two main characters, or perhaps not that, but whether they were masquerading genuinely as males, or just playing at it; and also by the rather laboured formality of its humour, which had a flavour of the colonial autodidact, perhaps modelled on Tom Collins’ “Such is Life”.
This state of apathy was not to be permanent. Reading Joy Thwaite’s biography, The Importance of being Eve Langley (1989), reprinted in paperback in the 1990s, raised in me a flicker of interest in seeing something of the New Zealand city, Auckland, where she met her husband Hilary Clarke and where the half-dozen haphazard years of her marriage were pursued, and also where she wrote the prize-winning novel of nostalgia for her youthful days in Victoria. What attracted me was the picture of the artistic and literary goings-on in the 1930s in that city of which I knew virtually nothing – combining, as so often, the semi-slum city socializing in pubs and garrets (the nineteenth century Parisian romance), with Candide-like rural poverty. A chance overnight stay at a friend of a friend’s house in Auckland during a brief visit in 2005, gave a glimpse of a city street with more promise in its architectural record than anything I had seen in Hamilton, Wellington or Christchurch on an earlier visit.
By the time another visit to New Zealand was called for, I had forgotten most of the detail of the biography, apart from Langley’s horrifying conception of adequate care of her children – shutting them in a shed all day, both aged under three, while she wrote, out of hearing, in the house, and occasionally, as I thought, went off, from their isolated rural slum into Auckland. But I retained a general feeling of wanting to explore what had been her environs, so I arranged to have an extra day in Auckland before returning to Australia.
In a quick reading of the New Zealand section of the biography, I marked all the specific place references I could find, and this proved a very scattered gleaning as the book is written, I now found, without much attention to orderliness in terms of time and place, and I collated them by person – Eve, Hilary, family and friends – and location, as best I could discern it with the help of a good Auckland atlas. My rough plan was to allocate the afternoon of my arrival to looking at the Auckland city sites, and the morning of my day of departure to the rural domestic retreat, which proved actually to be in Auckland, on its NorthShore, and not away up the coast in the bush, as I had imagined.
Hilary Clarke and the Symonds Street area
When Eve met Hilary he was, romantically, living and painting in Partington’s Mill – The Old Mill – ‘a great old red brick mill grey-helmeted’ which ‘had quite an atmosphere, being surrounded by odd lanes and cul-de-sacs and a glory of red and white camellia trees’. No street address is given for the Old Mill (a wind mill), but the house where Eve acquired a flat in Symonds Street was ‘in shouting distance’, and therefore the Mill was in or near Symonds Street. Hilary was at the time a student (later a teacher) at the Elam School of Art in Auckland. He was in his early twenties, she about thirty. And he was probably bi-sexual.
My hotel was well-situated for my purpose, toward the southern end of Queen Street, the main shopping street of Auckland, which runs roughly north-south, bucketing up and down as it goes, its northern end terminating at the central railway station on the southern shore of Auckland’s WaitemataHarbour. It runs more or less parallel to Symonds Street, the next street to the west, which runs along the top of a high ridge, and the bucketing of Queen Street results from its traverse of the side ridges running down westwards from the Symonds Street ridge.
The only street address that the biography yields for Hilary heads a letter he wrote much later, after his marriage and the family’s move north of the harbour: The Studio, Cross Street, Auckland. It seemed unlikely that this was his Old Mill address – of course I had no idea if the Mill still existed – but it was a good place to start the search, for the atlas showed Cross Street not far south of my hotel, running between Queen Street and Pitt Street, the next roughly parallel street to the west.
At its northern end, north of my hotel, Queen Street is the main city shopping centre, while southward it tails off into less salubrious and mixed purpose city buildings, and Cross Street is the pits, both aesthetically and geographically. The street, of warehouses or offices, it was hard to tell which, is a picture of post-war jerry-built ugliness, concrete and glass with no attempt to be visually pleasing, and it was immediately obvious that no mill was there. Everything except two small slots of buildings was obviously later than Hilary’s time. Perhaps a relic of earlier artistic activity, some bright feathered young people, possibly art students, were fooling about with a vintage car in front of a concrete slabs building which might, with typical aesthetic insensitivity, be part of an art school. Yet round the corner in Pitt Street some fine old Italian Renaissance buildings, fallen on hard times, had survived.
Cross Street scene
No luck here, so the next move was to investigate Symonds Street, and as I climbed the steep side streets to reach it, it became obvious that this was where a windmill would have been located, and not in the depth between ridges of Cross Street. Hilary’s studio in Cross Street would not have been in the Old Mill.
There was no Old Mill in, or in sight of, Symonds Street, though this was certainly the place to catch the winds, so I concluded it has gone, as has just about anything of any age in that dress circle of Auckland, apart from the cemetery at its southern end. Much of it on its east side is taken up with University buildings, and the originally stately mansions, such as the one Eve lived in, ruthlessly destroyed. Nor did there seem much prospect of the ‘odd lanes and cul-de-sacs’ surviving amid the large new, and mostly unappealing, modern buildings. However, it occurred to me later that the unexpectedly small and irregular, and sometimes astonishingly precipitous streets that lie between Symonds Street and Queen Street down below are what are referred to, with their bucketing character uncommented. In fact, nothing in the biography prepared me for the “rocking land” character of Auckland, the result no doubt of past volcanic activity.
Down one of these side streets I came across an unusual older brick building, possibly pre-war, which was the unlikely domain of a wine bar, and which I decided to credit as Bodega’s wine bar, where Hilary used to drink, and where Eve accompanied him on one occasion after the move to Birkenhead. It is now called “Number 5” and is in
a most unlikelily named “City Road”, which couldn’t be less like the main thoroughfares
Wine Bar, City Road
that usually sport this appellation. But Hilary’s chief drinking hole with his bohemian artistic friends was The Northcote Arms, which I imagined to be in the Auckland city area where he originally lived – but more of this later.
Hilary’s mother lived in Grafton Street, which runs off Symonds Street near the University, and descends into the gully on the eastern side of the ridge (the opposite side from Queen Street). All trace of pre-war buildings, with the exception of one house, has gone, and the street is now primarily an access road to a freeway in the valley below. The remaining house is of the California Bungalow style that persisted from about 1900 to the inter-war years, so it was possibly in one such as this that Mrs Clarke raised her darling second son, Hilary. Its location means that, at the time of Eve’s arrival, Hilary had not moved far from home.
Grafton Street house
Eve pre-Hilary – mainly inner-suburban Ponsonby
Eve arrived in Auckland pregnant from a love affair (not her first in New Zealand), together with her mother, Mia, and sister, June. June had abandoned her New Zealand husband and child, regarding the care of their mother as her first priority (this was probably less demanding). They first lived in a boarding house at the top of Wakefield Street, a comparatively wide street running down from Symonds Street to the switchback Queen Street, towards its southern end. Mia and June later moved to a flat in City Road (of the wine bar), a similar location, while Eve moved further out westward to the Ponsonby area, to obtain pre- and post-natal care for the impending birth. Ponsonby Road, like Symonds Street, runs roughly north-south along a ridge from near the southern shore of the harbour, with side streets descending steeply, and is today a trendy café-culture thoroughfare, perhaps a present-day version of the artiness that Symonds Street offered then. (It turned out to be the street that had caught my interest the previous year.) The shopping area consists of substantial early 20th century two-storey shops.
The baby was born in AucklandHospital, but it is unclear what became of it. Eve’s first baby, also born in New Zealand, was born healthy but wasted away – one suspects neglect given the family propensities; this one may have died at birth or been adopted. Eve became a beneficiary of the Catholic Church’s charities for unmarried mothers, and boarded first (I think – the biography is vague on such detail) with a Mrs O’Loan in Hazlitt Street, off Eden Terrace (which I did not pursue); then in Newton Road, which is a continuation of Ponsonby Road curving west towards Queen Street; and lastly, in Ponsonby Road, near the Fire Station.
The house where she boarded in Newton Road was described by one of her writer friends as ‘gully-hanging’ near the dead end of the street, but now, although the houses cease abruptly as the land falls away into a gully, the road continues on via a bridge over a major freeway down below. This alerted me to an interesting feature of the Auckland inner city freeway system. Where in most cities the freeways are constructed as flyovers or expansions of earlier roads, or occasionally as tunnels, in Auckland they run below the older road system in deep gullies which, presumably, were never built into because of their unsuitability for housing, and so provided a perfect opportunity for the construction of new roads. Older roads generally come to a dead stop, as they must have from the
Ponsonby Road shops and cafes near the fire station
beginning, simply because of the steep gullies, but the major ones go over the freeway roads, and probably some of them did previously, bridging scrubby gullies then, rather than freeways.
In Ponsonby Road looking for the Fire Station, sure enough I found it, on the corner of Lincoln Street. Although Ponsonby Road has not been cleared of older buildings generally, the current fire station is not the building of Eve’s time, though there is no reason to think the location is altered. It is in an area of shops rather than houses. However, further along the shops end and are replaced by houses of very varied size and quality, some of which could easily have served as boarding houses and I found at least one a Guest House today. A venture down Lincoln Street, beside the Fire Station, gave a sample of the housing that was there in Eve’s time, a very varied array of attractive early 20th century weatherboard cottages, all restored and painted in character, but probably, like similar houses in the Brisbane of my youth, shabby and unappreciated in the depression and immediate post-war years, when they were out of fashion.
I’d wondered if I might come across an institutional building that housed unwed mothers before they gave birth, and found nothing on Ponsonby Road, though there was a large weatherboard church. But between two houses in Lincoln Street I spotted the back of a wooden church or church hall, surmounted by a cross, and in the next parallel street (Vermont Street) I found a collection of buildings of the Sacred Heart Parish (signboard saying established 1886), including a Holy Cross Seminary. It is plausible that this brotherhood or sisterhood provided sanctuary for unmarried mothers, including Eve, and then, after the birth, found them accommodation nearby with Catholic families, as was the case with Eve.
Eve was taken to the heart of the last family she boarded with, but left them precipitately after meeting Hilary, to take up a bohemian residence near him.
Eve and Hilary – Symonds Street
Eve found a flat as romantically bohemian as Hilary’s Old Mill in a former private mansion in Symonds Street, The Waratah. It was built by a Baron de Thierry, but had been turned into flats – ‘a two-storey warren of a house, early colonial’, and Eve’s flat was in the former servants quarters in the garret, with dormer windows – a long verandah-like room and a smaller one. She decorated it exotically. It was ‘within shouting distance of Hilary’s studio at the mill’, and to the left looked out on ‘Partington’s [the mill owner’s] old house and fruit garden [orchard]’.
As mentioned already, almost all the old houses of Symonds Street have been demolished to make way for commercial buildings on the north side, and university buildings on the south side. Just to the east of Grafton Road, a string of three or four early Victorian houses remain, incorporated in the University, but none is called The Waratah, none has dormer windows, and none is large or rambling enough to be called ‘a warren’. Still, it seems pretty certain that both Eve and Hilary had their bohemian accommodation up here on the southern dress-circle ridge of Auckland, within easy reach of both their families (down either side of the ridge) and possibly of several other members of their artistic acquaintanceship – Barry Burns, one of the local poets with whom Eve made contact, had his dry-cleaning business in Wellesley Road, which runs west off Symonds Street a little south of Grafton Road, and north of Wakefield Street.
Symonds Street – University Buildings and Rationalist House
Symonds Street – old houses
Among the few remaining pre-war buildings on Symonds Street’s west side is Rationalist House, confirming a locale for progressive intellectuals and artists. A pavement café now operates from its ground floor, and is wittily called “Rations Café”.
Eve and Bisi
Eve’s and Hilary’s first child, a daughter, Bisi, was born, after their marriage, at Saint Helen’s Hospital (no longer listed in the phone book) in Pitt Street, which I have described as at the western end of Cross Street. The biography tells us that Eve and Hilary ‘walked up the hill from Newton’, which suggests that they lived together for a time in the locality of her previous pregnancy, or perhaps she returned for a time to one of the families/houses that had previously given her shelter.
Pitt Street buildings
Birkenhead and Chelsea
My second day in Auckland was devoted to seeking out the locations of the houses Eve and Hilary lived in after moving out of the city itself, in the period of her haphazard caring for their children and the writing of The Pea Pickers, which won the Bulletin prize and established her as an Australian writer, although as it turned out, one without a future.
The biography creates a picture of Hilary moving his wife and child out of the artistic climate of Auckland to a rural slum, where they were immured while he made regular visits to Auckland, keeping up his city associations. My impression from the book was that the move was to somewhere on the sea coast away from all urban amenities – the sort of neither-town-nor-country unserviced situation that develops ahead of suburban spread. This turned out to be a very inaccurate picture. Firstly, Birkenhead, where they settled initially, is just across Auckland’s WaitamataHarbour from the Ponsonby area of Auckland, not some distance away up or down the coast. Secondly, it was clearly, from the period of the houses and the suburban shops, already a well-developed “north shore” suburb at the time, even if there were gaps in the housing development. Eve and her children (two more were to follow Bisi) were not ‘out in the bush’, but within easy walking distance of a suburban shopping centre similar in age and quality of buildings to Ponsonby.
The biography gives a specific address for their first home in Birkenhead – 43 Hinemoa Street. This is a pleasant, broad suburban street leading down from the high ridge, where the shops are, to the harbour. The house was ‘a bare hovel’, an old bach [shack] owned by ‘Maori Gran’, who apparently lived close by, perhaps on the same block, further up the hill. From this description, I imagined a large area of uncleared land, certainly not a suburban street. The surprise was, that in an apparently undisturbed early 20th century street, No. 43 Hinemoa Street was no longer there, as a house or a number. The house numbers jump from 39, a large two-storey brick and timber house, to 47, a pretty pre-war timber house with verandahs. There is a side street between them, quite short and a dead end, probably made possible because Maori Gran’s block contained only shacks. Presumably numbers 41 to 45 (3 lots) are lost to the side street, though this seems rather too many for the space. This would seem to imply that the side street is new, though there is a pleasant pre-war house near where it terminates above the gully that separates the suburbs of Birkenhead and Chelsea. The next two houses down, numbers 35 and 37, look 1950s, but could be pre-war.
49 Hinemoa Street, from side street
39 Hinemoa Street looking down side street to gully
At this point, Hinemoa Street is running quite steeply down to a large wharf on the harbour, and from near 43 there is thick bush on the high, right-hand, side of the road, but houses continue right down to the water on the left. From the wharf there is a ferry service across the harbour to the city, and across the inlet to the west is the Birkenhead Sugar Refinery where Hilary first worked part-time while still tutoring at Elam School of Art, and later full-time when he abandoned the latter, presumably to earn more to support his family.
Birkenhead Sugar Refinery, across an inlet from Hinemoa Street
The family’s next move was ‘down the hill’ to Summerlands, Chelsea, shared with its owner, Mrs Gaussen, a very elderly lady with an active love-life. The impression given is that the house was run-down but substantial, with a yard large enough for a shed and adjoining pen into which the now two children, both aged less than three, were shut, without compunction it seems, despite their protests, all day, while Eve wrote her poems and her interminable diary/novels in the house, out of hearing and neglecting to feed or clean them. There was a spring in the garden in which Bisi nearly drowned, and one infers that Hilary built the pen so that the children could be out of doors ‘safely’, given Eve’s unconcern for supervision of such young children. They were also left there alone on occasion (possibly rare) when Eve accompanied Hilary to the Northcote Arms, which I took, from the book, to be miles away in Auckland.
The phrase ‘down the hill’ suggests further down Hinemoa Street, but the suburb of Chelsea is on the next ridge to the east. I could not find anything answering to the name or description of Summerlands further down Hinemoa Street, so followed up a mention of Rugby Road, Chelsea, that might have implied that it was there. Rugby Road runs off the top of Hinemoa Street, just where there is a small group of turn-of-the-century shops. It too runs downhill, in the direction of the sugar refinery, with pleasant houses lining both sides, but again, no Summerlands.
Shops, corner of Hinemoa and Rugby Streets
Finally, in 1940, Hilary bought ‘old Mr Heysen’s house’, a derelict cottage in Queen Street, Chelsea. Hilary worked on improving the derelict cottage and built himself a studio with clay bricks ‘on the hillside’. He named the house Khan Pehleu. Queen Street is to the east of Hinemoa Street, and confusingly ‘across the damp valley from Summerlands’. We are also told that it was across WaitamataHarbour, though not from where – presumably Auckland, for it is on the same side of WaitamataHarbour as Birkenhead. If both Rugby Road and Queen Street are in Chelsea, it is a sort of dress circle suburb for the Harbour, on the higher plateau land, with Birkenhead down the slope to the water. However, the current atlas puts Queen Street in Northcote.
Queen Street is a long level street along a ridge top, obviously residential well before World War II. To the north it heads up towards the main roads off the harbour bridge, while to the south it runs towards the harbour, and descends to a ferry point for crossing to the city. I chose the more likely direction of south to explore, looking for a house name Khan Pehleu. No luck, as usual, but what I did encounter dramatically threw quite a different light on Hilary’s domestic provisions for his family from what I had gained in reading the biography out of geographical context. Suddenly I came upon a large striking two-storey weatherboard building, probably turn of the 19th to 20th centuries, a hotel or pub with the sign, Northcote Tavern.
I had looked in the Auckland phone directory for the Northcote Arms, Hilary’s favourite drinking place with his bohemian friends, and found only the Northcote Tavern, which it seemed plausible was its current name (New Zealand uses ‘tavern’ where Australia says ‘hotel’), in Queen Street. I’d assumed this was Queen Street, the main shopping street of Auckland, but had forgotten to look for it when I drove through the town having a general look at the architecture on my first day there, and it had seemed that search must go by the board for lack of remaining time. But now, here it was, and indeed in Queen Street – Chelsea.
With this reorientation, it seemed not at all unlikely that Hilary and his friends had been accustomed to take the short trip across the harbour by ferry to enjoy this historic and architecturally appealing old pub, only a shortish walk from the jetty, thereby getting into a different atmosphere from that of Auckland proper. It is then feasible and reasonable to infer that Hilary, in moving Eve to Birkenhead to solve their financial/housing problems, was not callously isolating her from their artistic circle, but also making it easier for her to continue to participate. It meant that Eve and Hilary, if visiting the pub, were only across the gully from their imprisoned infants, not across the water – 10 minutes, not an hour, away – though this is bad enough. There is now a road, Maritime Drive, running across the higher shallower part of the damp gully between Hinemoa and Queen Streets, with the valley itself reserved as green parkland.
The Northcote tavern
Maritime Drive, looking towards the Queen Street ridge
Further, by taking on the job at the sugar refinery nearby, and eventually, in what must have been a sacrifice of his own career, giving up his job at the Art School, he was keeping closer to his family, rather than escaping it, as I had supposed when I thought their move was out of Auckland to somewhere on the sea coast. This turned on its head the picture I had constructed when reading the biography, of Hilary as neglectful and self-centred, taking little responsibility for his family, and giving no consideration to his wife’s literary ambitions. Instead, a very young man deserving sympathy and admiration, who strove valiantly to nurture his feckless wife’s genuine talent and to both support and care for their children, while not even her children could attenuate Eve’s “possession” by writing to record her existential subjectivity, which increasingly lacked the creative discipline needed for literary success.
After eating lunch at the tables at the back of the Northcote Tavern, it was time to return to Auckland and the airport. Despite the failures to identify actual buildings, my imagining of Eve’s and Hilary’s life in Auckland had been given a concrete visual background, and my understanding of their respective marital and parental behaviour was transformed.
Some time after this exploration I returned to The Pea Pickers. With the background provided by the biography of Eve’s real life experience as an itinerant rural worker, I could cope with the exhibitionism of adding moustaches and masculine names to the wearing of men’s clothes. After all, some fifty years earlier, having adopted men’s army clothing from disposal stores for bushwalking, I continued to wear it for itinerant student vacation work – tobacco stringing in North Queensland, raspberry picking in Tasmania, and canning factory work in Victoria.
Although The Pea Pickers has nothing of the organic structure of the sophisticated novel, being a formless peripatetic romance not unlike Don Quixote, I came away from it agreeing with the opinion of a New Zealand literary magazine editor (the poet Douglas Stuart) quoted in the biography, that she was a writer of true genius, one of only three living at the time. (A second was John Cowper Powys, for whom, too, I have a particular penchant.) She is a word genius. There are passages in which she describes the Australian bush with a spiritual veracity no one else has achieved, although William Robinson has done something of the same in painting. There is an hypnotic evocation of its contemplative impact – visual, sensual, emotional and aesthetic – as an indivisible experience.
But above all the book is a touching, a moving evocation of what it is to be young with a soul – youth’s pains, its helplessness, its freedom, its bravery – and of the passions for nature and of love on their first encounter – the extravagance of feeling before in self-defence one learns to deaden their intensity. One thinks of Prospero’s response to Miranda’s, “O brave new world that has such people in it!’: ‘Tis new to thee’. No one else has done it so oddly and so well.
Langley, Eve. ( 1943) The Pea Pickers. Angus & Robertson, Sydney.
Thwaite, Joy. (1989) The Importance of Being Eve Langley. Angus & Robertson, North Ryde, NSW.
Descriptive quotations are Eve’s own words from her diary/novels via the biography; locational quotations are the biographer’s.
Catch 22: What does it really mean?
A Christmas television programme of several years back was a documentary of events on Christmas Eve 1944, the last Christmas of World War II. It recounted, among other stories, the bombing of a small village in northern Germany which, until then, had been almost untouched by the war. The story was told by three now elderly offspring of a prosperous farmer, children at the time, whose house was demolished in the air raid. They had survived by sheltering in the root cellar, but a refugee family of mother and two children who shared their house all died in the bombing. The survivors mourned them still, and wondered at the senselessness of the bombing of a tiny community, of no importance in the war. It was then revealed that the bombs, dropped by American planes, had been intended for a strategic target further on.
It was only a few days after seeing this documentary that I began re-reading Catch 22 after an interval of more than forty years, and was brought up hard by its “anti-war” hero’s boast that he no longer cared where he dropped his bombs, his one objective being to avoid being shot at. This juxtaposition, serendipitous or unfortunate, sounded a warning knell and cast a sinister pall over what has been readily accepted as a light-hearted comedy of the absurd, with the serious substratum of an anti-war message. Yossarian’s manic rejection of the obligations forced on him by war service now had attached to it, in my reading, its long repercussions for his unknown “others”.
Catch 22, like Lolita, was one of a clutch of morally transforming books of the 1960s. It both expressed and sustained what became the anti-war and anti-bureaucracy philosophy of the “flower people” and the anti-Vietnam War protesters, and of sixties and seventies youth generally. Yossarian’s, the anti-hero’s, position, for most of the novel, is in marked contrast to that of most earlier heroes of fact or fiction, and was well-suited to the developing ethos of the “me-generation”. Blatantly stated, it elevates personal survival – self-interest at its most basic and therefore most telling and forgivable level – above obligations to others, either as individuals or as society in general. The book was fed to Australian teenagers as high school curriculum for several decades, and scored (probably as a result) as one of “Australia’s 10 favourite books” in an ABC survey (more accurately, the 10 favourite among the ABC’s left-leaning intelligentsia). It is unlikely that Yossarian’s views have been presented to the book’s youthful readers across the years as, arguably, those of a mind collapsed under stress.
In a dispassionate reading, Catch 22 could, for much of its course, be a psychological examination of shell-shock – its causes and symptoms; sympathetic, but not a document of moral approbation and argument for the greater sanity and social worth of Yossarian’s mental and moral characteristics. Understanding and sympathy for the condition of shell-shock was already achieved as a result of World War I, so the book is not pioneering in this respect, but it is exceptional as an anatomy of the condition, and as an exposition of the difficulty, in administrative terms, of distinguishing between innate and pathological cowardice. In this view, its plan is a slow revelation, by the clever manipulation of time sequence, of its aetiology in one man, Yossarian. The novel’s method or argument is, with some justification, to treat his shocked state of mind as sane and normal, and that of the unshocked as mad and irrational. Sixties readers, who understood the novel as an anti-war dissertation, with a moral stance that justified to the point of admiration what traditionally would be considered cowardice, even criminal cowardice, did not notice the hesitations Hellyer maintains with regard to Yossarian’s shell-shocked world vision, and their interpretation of the author’s intentions cannot really be sustained.
The moral justification for putting personal good above social good is explicitly argued, from time to time, between Yossarian and others of his company, but in contrast to most literature in the modern Western, and therefore Christian, tradition, sense and sanity as background to the argument are placed on the side of self-interest, as against the common good or social project, and this placement is made plausible by painting the social world as both vicious and absurd. Other writers, of course, have taken this line – the Marquis de Sade, for instance, whose philosophy influenced the infamous Moors murderers in 1960s Britain, Nietsche whose conception of the Superman was used to justify fascism, while Richard Dawkins of The Selfish Gene brings up the modish 20th century rearguard.
Morally, Yossarian stands, almost alone in the novel, between two contrasting groups of characters – the decent men lit by social conscience, like Clevinger, and the conscienceless exploiters of situations for their own benefit, like Milo Minderbinder. We recognize these two types of humanity in normal life, but in the wartime situation of the novel their characteristics are exaggerated for better and for worse, respectively. These are the two types to whom Dawkins, also, gives salience in his game theory of Selfish Genes – the honest players and the cheats. .
Clevinger, the “hero” pilot who always flies straight in to drop his bombs, without evasive action, and is lost in a cloud (Christ-like?), is the primary counterpoint to Yossarian. He argues with Yossarian about the greater obligations of winning the war, greater than obligations to oneself and one’s immediate fellows – obligations to those who will suffer if it is lost – but without mentioning self-sacrifice or personal heroism. Clevinger argues that morality is responsibility, but this is made to sound rarified stuff beside Yossarian’s simple and factual counterpoint of, “They are trying to kill me,” which is, indeed true, although not in a personal sense. A decade earlier Orwell prefigured this mantra in his essay “England Your England”:
‘As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.
They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are “only doing their duty”, as the saying goes.’
But unlike Yossarian, Orwell does not use this tragedy as a case for moral exit. Also of the Clevinger group are Captains Piltchard and Uren, men who adhere to the moral standards of the soldier, but unlike Clevinger have no theory of their heroism. They are so entirely non-flamboyant as to consider themselves almost mundane in their ability to relish danger, and they are mildly scorned as unimaginative by the disenchanted Yossarian.
Hellyer makes the actions and attitudes of the traditionally good and heroic appear ludicrous by setting them in the context of the self-seeking, hypocrisy, and corruption of his wonderfully funny depiction, absurd with a ring of truth, of airforce bureaucracy and individual capitalist enterprise. Milo, the trader in all stocks and merchandise, is the capitalist par excellence, the supreme economic rationalist, who can stretch his argument of trickle-down benefit (“Everyone is a member of the syndicate, and everybody has a share”) even to the bombing of his own squadron. In the same camp are officers at various levels whose principles stretch no further than ensuring the maximum chances for their own promotion. Yossarian is clearly not of this camp, and to begin with we are inclined to think of him as a lost sheep from the moral fold, who has seen, like Dawkins, that its members are doomed to be losers, but will not join the cheats who are in control. It is the shock of the revelation of “Snowdon’s secret” that has cast him out of the game.
However, as the novel proceeds we realize that Yossarian has always been in a moral no-man‘s land, a non-believer in either group. He was already playing sick and escaping to hospital while in training, well before the shell-shock experiences of Bologna and Avignon. Yossarian, before he was a coward, was the clowning rebel, the type who thinks it smart to mock society’s traditional values, the creature of bohemia and what used to be called free-thinking. Of similar character is the boy in an American short story (probably autobiographical, but I‘ve forgotten the author), working in a car-parking lot before going to college, who joked on hearing of Kennedy‘s assassination, and was taken aback when his uneducated companion African American attendant, who had previously let his iconoclastic chatter pass unremarked, turned on him with scorn, saying, ‘Don‘t you take anything seriously?’
The mystery of Snowdon’s secret is maintained for most of the novel as a substitute for genuine plot, and gives the impression of being the primary cause of Yossarian‘s moral collapse; but as the time line becomes clearer it appears that that experience was over Avignon, and even before that trauma Yossarian had forced a premature turning back from a mission to Bologna by deliberately pulling out the intercom to the pilot. Snowdon’s secret is an excuse, albeit revelatory, whose real meaning crystalizes for Yossarian only at the end of the novel, at the same time as we learn what the secret is.
Yossarian came to the war with the nihilism of the disaffected mid-twentieth century intellectual. It is not just a temporary anomie caused by shell shock. His amorality is a deep and dangerous trait, a model lethal to the sustaining role of society in human affairs. The religious nihilism of the nineteenth century was paved with a social commitment to freedom and individuality which, it was believed, would replace the chains of religion and social constraints, and create a better, happier society. Yossarian’s nihilism is unredeemed, and openly expresses a sole commitment to self at its starkest level – to hedonism and its necessary corollary, staying alive. It lacks even the mixed, deluding avowals of Milo’s capitalism. Wilde, in Dorian Gray, mythologizes the evil of this moral bankruptcy, but Hellyer allows it to be read as funny and clever, in a way that Wilde’s tale simply cannot. This was a philosophy that needed only to be expressed in order to be adopted by a young generation deracinated from class and culture by mass education and migration.
Having made the case for moral detachment in the context of a vicious society, Hellyer finally half about-turns, and contradicts the messages that its over-identifying readers have embraced. In the last two chapters the moral position changes. After a book’s length of bridling at the constant increase in the number of tours of duty imposed before being given leave, Yossarian refuses the deal offered him of returning home with a phoney award of honours. At this point, he finally reveals Snowden’s secret. Attempting to deal with Snowden’s leg wounds, he had found that in fact his guts had been shot away, and was overwhelmed by this confrontation with our undeniably carnal dependency. Conjointly, these events reorientate Yossarian and enable him to find a resolution for his anomic predicament.
The final significance of Snowden’s secret is not to say that we are only matter, only blood and guts, but that if we lose spirit that is all we are, and so we must not lose spirit, as Yossarian almost deliberately has. He realizes this when he reviews the Snowden incident, instigated by the spectre, mean-faced, who says to him, “We’ve got your pal”. This coincides with his decision not to accept the “deal”. He must escape, but must keep his soul intact.
We realize then that, underneath his reiterated cynicism, Yossarian is actually committed to the reasonableness which bureaucracy is meant to impose. His team have done their fair share of missions and should be relieved, not exploited in the service of Colonel Cathcart’s ambition; and the wounded should receive the morphine supplied for their needs, not be denied it as a result of Milo’s trading activities. It is individuals, not the system, that have made these well-meant provisions null and void. What can their victims do? Staying in the system and trying not to cooperate doesn’t work – the corrupters of the system are too powerful and too devious; and playing their game to achieve personal justice is “odious”, dishonourable. The only answer is to run away, like Orr – plan carefully and get out. You cannot win, inside, but you may escape. Just as Huxley’s Brave New World has a primitive zone where misfits can be human, Orr can find his way to a non-war-zone.
Yossarian’s solution is not heroic – heroes combat, not escape, and martyrs endure; but it is realistic, and it allows Yossarian at last to find that he believes in something. It at least rescues him from the state of moral passivity in which he has laboured for most of the book. In that condition he angrily blamed society for the pitifulness of a boy in a thin shirt and bare feet, but did not consider giving him his own warm coat. Redeemed, he determines not just to escape himself, but to rescue Nately’s whore’s kid sister.
Catch 22 is not really, in its fundamental ethics, primarily concerned to be anti-war, or anti-bureaucracy as such, but is rather, anti-totalitarian-bureaucracy. The state of war creates totalitarianism within democratic countries, and it is totalitarianism, as compared with democracy, that allows individuals to corrupt bureaucratic systems that are meant to be benign. It is thus ironic that it was seized on so enthusiastically by neo-Marxists as a denunciation of their own democratic, albeit capitalist, system. The author’s intentions apart, and they are sufficiently veiled to make this a complex novel rather than a logic-driven dissertation, Catch 22 cannot possibly, despite Milo, serve as a critique of capitalist societies – its mise en scene is entirely totalitarian.