new zealand electronic poetry centre


Ian Wedde


Ian Wedde

Auckland Art Gallery 1st triennial catalogue, Bright Paradise, 2001.

Looking for a place to start with the idea of a ‘maritime Sublime’, I climb up into the attic to retrieve the Journal of James "Worser" Heberley. Worser was a young whaler who came ashore off Cook Strait on April Fool’s Day 1829, and I used his journal as a source in writing the novel Symmes Hole. (1) Poking my head into my orderly pataka of archive boxes, I'm thinking how storytelling provides consciousness with a symbolic grammar, enlivens information and awakens memory. Worser tells the story of himself climbing into a pataka at Te Awaiti inside Tory Channel. And in Symmes Hole, in a section called "Ghost Writing" in homage to Melville's querulous, grinning hero, Dr Long Ghost, I resorted to the cheap trick of exiling my dangerously dissociated narrator, a contemporary counterpart to Worser, under the roof of his house in order to indulge in a long, uninterrupted daydream of Pacific history.

"Ghost Writing" begins with this history-maddened narrator recalling that, "today was Robert Louis Stevenson's birthday." His subsequent voyage through a Pacific history recollected from romantic maroons, twists and contorts around such hallucinating narrators as Stevenson and Melville. These nineteenth century funambulists, teetering along their swaying Pacific narratives above a Sublime abyss at once exhilarating and abject, represent the mid-point for an intellectual enterprise we now look back on as having been inaugurated in Europe's Age of Reason, seasoned in the Enlightenment, excited by Romanticism, exaggerated by the intellectual tourism of ethnology, brought to crisis by modernism, and made banal and sensational by the tourism of television's Discovery Channel. They show us where the strange trauma of the Sublime - that shot-through-with-lightning cloudy tale of the philosophes - had got to before "mechanical reproduction" made merely commonplace the capture of sublime effects such as the painterly handling of the sea in J.M.W. Turner's Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying: Typhoon Coming On (1840). With breathtaking dissociation John Ruskin described the painterly handling of the sea in this work, also known as The Slave Ship, as "the noblest certainly ever painted by man". (2)

Ruskin was operating within a discipline of art history invented by mid-nineteenth century middle-European philosophes as a branch of moral philosophy, and further legitimised by Alexander Baumgarten's invention of aesthetics as a quasi-scientific way of establishing the experience of beauty as the sensory recognition of perfection. That Ruskin could so blithely ignore the horrific content of The Slave Ship to concentrate on its aestheticised Sublime affect is symptomatic of the traumatic nature of the Sublime, and its dissociation from the conditions of (extra-)ordinary lives, like Worser's. Winston Churchill famously characterised life before the mast for the ordinary sailor in Her Majesty's navy in the Age of Enlightenment as "rum, sodomy, and the lash." The Pogues made this the title of an album. The phrase reminds us of the undertows of narrative reality that tug at lofty rhetoric.

What was I hoping to find up in the attic of my house? "Every passion borders on chaos," wrote Walter Benjamin, "but the passion of the collector borders on the chaos of memory." (3) I used this seductive quote as one of the epigraphs before the "Ghost Writing" section of Symmes Hole.

Another one was "Life ho!", from Melville. Somewhere in the archive boxes, pretending to be orderly but in fact a chaos, is evidence of a life at once ordinary but also incredible, a life of astonishing adventure driven obsessively by a desire to find a way of being "somewhere in particular" as Donna Haraway puts it in her essay "The Persistence of Vision". (4)

Worser's life-yarn was the narrative spine of Symmes Hole. Looking at the sea without seeing the drowning slaves in it, the eighteenth and nineteenth century philosophes of the Sublime were largely unaware of records such as Worser's. Their "vision" was entirely metaphysical, not "embodied clear sight" in Haraway's sense. Worser's vision, on the other hand, while having a yarn-spinner's fabulous dimension, was also clear and somewhere.

One of the somewheres Worser described is the narrow passage of Tory Channel, through which a swirling tide enters and exits the winding gut of Queen Charlotte Sound off Cook Strait. These days we are blasé about Tory Channel, because the Wellington-Picton ferry, like an apartment block with a pointed end, goes routinely in and out there. Earlier navigators were much closer to the surface and submarine depth of the water and not so blasé. Just inside the heads is Whekenui, whose Maori name records the
Polynesian navigator Kupe's encounter with a giant octopus. Watching the fast, groping sinews of tidal water and the streaming arms of bull kelp, it's plausible to imagine that Kupe's victory was over a monster of water not flesh, or that the wheke was both a brute and a brute of a current.

It's helpful to think of oceans as rivers, which is closer to the "embodied vision" of close-to-the-water navigators like Kupe than it is to the blue expanses of mapmakers who privilege the Sublime vastness of ocean. Oceans, and especially straits, pour strongly; banks border them; their currents flow over mountainous, chasmed seabeds. Cook Strait is itself a narrow tidal river through which the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean slosh quarrelsomely in and out of each other, and the Strait has a fissured floor over which the tides drop or are heaved up, especially at the so-called "Karori Rip", where the water racing across a great submarine sill makes what yachties call "the washing machine", a maelstrom of directionless chop that a sou'easterly wind can push up into a chaos of three and four metre high waves breaking in all directions at once across the swell.

Being very close to the surface of this, and indeed close to the deep below, is certainly "awesome" and can be "terrible" in the Burkean as well as the scared-shitless sense. All the more so when modernity's navigation instruments - the magnetic compass, chronometer, and more recently the GPS - have dissociated us from that surface, much as Baumgarten's aesthetics and professionalised art history dissociated
consciousness from visual narrative, particularly from the enlivening narratives of memory.

Last summer my cousin and I, with two of my sons, were anchored in a sheltering bay off the main arm of Tory Channel waiting for a sou'easter to blow over. For days the whitecaps had been tearing past the mouth of the bay like a crowd of headbanded marathon runners, and the surrounding hills, a horizon of dark, lashing treetops, had seemed to be forever falling forward as the clouds raced across them. Finally the wind died and the marine forecast indicated a temporary window in the weather. Crossing Cook Strait from Tory Channel to Port Nicholson, you have to time your run to get to the Karori Rip at slack tide, otherwise you get the "full benefit" of the Rip. In addition, the tide needs to be running east once you've cleared the Rip. All this is customary knowledge among yachties who sail this water, as it would have been for the canoe navigators Captain Cook didn't notice treating the strait as a convenient water bridge. We did our navigation sums, and set off in the dark to clear Tory Channel about 3.30 a.m. There was little wind; the sheltered sound was calm.

You expect it to be rough just past the heads, and it was. In the dark, we were not surprised to come out into a violent rearing and breaking chop. There was not a lot of wind, but too much anyway, about twenty knots. The preceding days of sou'easter had pushed the swell up and the tide gushing from Tory Channel was playing havoc with it. The trouble was, hours later, nothing had changed. The black water broke over us, the kids clung to the sides of the cockpit and spewed, and it was nearly impossible to get any sense of direction. As the dark outline of the south island coast fell astern, we looked for the Karori Light but had to keep pointing up east to cope with the big sea. The diesel thudded reassuringly, but then began to sound and smell crook. John got the engine covers off and found water filling the bilges - the boat's electric bilge pump had failed. On hands and knees, retching and swearing, Penn heaved at the hand-pump in the cockpit. When dolphins joined us at dawn, no one was much enraptured. The "washing machine" section of the Karori Rip lasted about four hours instead of the usual half- to one hour. The sun came out. Barrett's Reef appeared as a broken line of white surf and black rocks. Twelve hours after leaving Tory Channel we puttered up Wellington harbour past the toy-house hillsides of Seatoun. Their aspect was comforting, not Sublime. The fast ferry crossing takes two and a half hours from berth to berth, and cannot be described as an "adventure."

Three things occur to me:
1. The oral mapping represented by Kupe-names like "Whekenui" embodies the clear sight and close contact required by Donna Haraway in her refocusing of the word "vision": a rebuttal of the Sublime, and of modernism's romance with transcendence.
2. The boat John, the boys and I were in was a seaworthy cruising yacht with a motor. We wouldn't have gone out in that weather in a wooden waka. Nonetheless, the body of water Cook called "Cook" in a rare act of egoism was a common thoroughfare for waka.
3. What are the different discourses of "Whekenui" and "Cook Strait" as names? One probably contains a mnemonic narrative that tells navigators what to do. The other is an example of the Imperial Project's mode of dissociated naming.

The official history of the emotional lives of Western societies has usually been recorded by and for an elite intellectual class defined by various combinations of literacy, patronage and privilege. Consequently the drama of the Sublime suggests an absurd arc of consciousness in the emotional life of the West, originating in a mis-attributed neoclassical moment in the 1st or 2nd century AD, when Longinus is supposed to have authored "On the Sublime", a famous rebuttal to the poet Horace. "On the Sublime" is no more likely to have mattered to people outside the circle of philosophes than Ad Reinhardt's flat rejection of originality did in the 1950s. And yet, there is a tantalisingly familiar tension in both moments: between decorum and originality, tradition and invention.

The "vision" of Horace’s odes was steadfastly if ironically "somewhere in particular". Their prosodies were brilliantly satisfied with academic, Greek-derived models. Longinus (the philosophes claimed) wanted less ‘somewhere’ and more sublimity – more originality. The philosophes wanted ‘Longinus’ to want unearthly, not commonplace, beauty.

The most succinct record of the late-modernist crisis of the Sublime is captured (usually misquoted) in the now mythic exchange between the transcendentally inclined Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, and the academically rigorous Ad Reinhardt. In 1943, with arch Sublimist Barnett Newman egging them on, Rothko and Gottlieb announced that, ‘There is no such thing as good painting about nothing.’ (5) Reinhardt’s rebuttal proclaimed that, ‘There is no such thing as a good painting about something.’ (6)

This was the moment at which the Sublime’s personality split: one half wanting abstraction to provide transcendence, as Ruskin wanted Turner’s catastrophic seascape to be without foreground narrative, to be all Sublime affect; the other wanting abstraction to be, so to speak, ‘de void of content’ – the Sublime’s ultimate abyss or maelstrom, into which all meaning has been plunged, extinguished, and sealed over – in black, of course, black that is utterly inscrutable and affectless.

And while it is absurd to suggest that the emotional history of the West can be sourced in Longinus, transported in the Sublime, and routed through Reinhardt, many societies record such binaried tensions between longing for the more of invention and transcendence, and satisfaction with the less of custom and material reality. And not just Western societies: the anxiety provoked by Maui throughout the Pacific is precisely on account of his making trouble between decorum and originality. In the West, though, the anxiety may be more pronounced, producing a trauma like the Sublime, as a result of what might be summarised as dissociation - sometimes called the great gift of modernity to civilisation. Negotiating between transcendence and materiality, and between originality and custom, will be less traumatic in cultures where such realms are imbricated rather than separated.

In addition, as the Sublime, bulked up with awesome reports of voyages, began to tsunami towards the nineteenth century, the great Linnaean project of renaming everything in the world was hastening the dissociation of nomination from narrative. The West's Imperial Project opened up a gap of dissociation into which the Romantic Sublime rushed, like a typhoon into a low-pressure zone.

Into the same gap rushed tourists, those creatures of the Sublime, as well as anthropologists and ethnologists, creatures of Sublime dissociation and of instrumentation. Their combined longing for sublimity and taxonomic certainty not only increased and accelerated the dissociation of names and symbols from narratives, and of senses from the natural world, it also separated "spirit" from "material', "form" from "function", and "commodity" from "value". Longing for adventure, the Sublime tourist mistook the customary for the exotic. Thirsting for transcendence, the tourists drove
themselves like wedges between complex, integrated realms of the natural and the supernatural. Picking their way through mountains of over-aestheticised or de-narrativised souvenirs, the philosophes sorted them into museums that may forever remain memorials to the Sublime trauma.

The contemporary brochure language of tourist resort real estate is also a museum: a linguistic display-case of fragments left over from the Sublime heyday. You can Get Back in Touch with Nature, Find Yourself, Be Somewhere Timeless, Be Awe Inspired. Your experience will inevitably involve Views and will be Scenic. Both can be purchased, as can Adventure. A new twist: eighteenth century Burkean Terror, the keystone of overarching Romantic Sublime emotion especially as experienced by the nineteenth century Sublime traveller, or by Percy Bysshe Shelley putting up too much sail on the Don Juan off Spezzia in 1822, is replaced by Eco-terror, the frightening but morally uplifting experience of immersion in ecological consciousness. The contemporary Sublime backpackers do WOOFA time on an organic farm; their wealthier safari counterparts video endangered animals in Africa.

Advertising for retirement homes and modern tourist guides both contain the sad echoes of the Sublime longing for solitude. Lonely Planet Guides, driving that old nineteenth century class and value distinction between "travellers" and "tourists", herd the twenty-first century's Wordsworths into Lake Districts organised as historic theme parks around promises of solitude; the "traveller" will, however, enjoy the bunk-house company of similarly mis-guided "tourists". An old snobbery is at work here, as old as the Sublime philosophe's imperial desire for first-contact naming-rights. And so the observing pronoun of Mungo Park's account of his epic voyage down the Niger in 1796, Travels in the Interior of Africa (1799), has been replaced by the observing lens of Animal Planet's video camera. Lonely, perhaps, but not alone in the virtual community of viewers, the "retired" elderly watch the backlit processions of endangered species – "Ecoterror!" – silhouetted against the sunsets of an Africa that is all Park.

Similarly dispiriting is the bogus over-rhetoricising of the contemporary Sublime's promotion of "spirituality". The various leech-gatherers and charcoal burners who became players in Wordsworth's Sublime hagiography probably subscribed to a robust animism under a veneer of Christianity, and would not have been too concerned to distinguish natural and supernatural realms. That's what's gone now, replaced by a prim, neo-Victorian pseudo-reverence towards the indigenous "spirituality" of the nineteenth century Sublime's missionary converts.

I descend my ladder, leaving Worser undisturbed in the pataka of memory. The sounds of waterspouts (wind gusting over sixty knots) fade; I can still taste salt. "Life ho!"

(1) Ian Wedde, Symmes Hole. Penguin Books and Faber and Faber, Auckland and London,1986.

(2) John Ruskin, Modern Painters, vol 2. JM Dent, London, 1906 (1843), p 10.

(3) Walter Benjamin, ‘Unpacking my Library: A Talk About Book Collecting’, Illuminations. Schocken Books, New York, 1978, p 60

(4) Donna Haraway, ‘The Persistence of Vision’, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: the Reinvention of Nature. Routledge, London and New York, 1991, pp 188-96.

(5) Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb in Edward Alden Jewell, ‘The Realm of Art: A New Platform and Other Matters: "Globalism" Pops into View’, New York Times, 13 June 1943.

(6) Ad Reinhardt, ‘Documents of Modern Art’, Pax, No 13, 1960.



Last updated 11 May 2001