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NZ’s gothic landscapes – 19th century NZ gothic

October 14, 2013

I really enjoyed Edmund King’s discussion of the use of the gothic in nineteenth-century NZ writing (both fictional and ‘scientific’ writing).

In his own words, with this article, he “examine[s] how Māori bodies contributed to a particularly gothic mode in settler writing, one which enabled its practitioners to articulate, and speculate about, the unknown, suppressed, and troubling elements of New Zealand geography and history. In particular,” he explains, “I want to focus on two distinct strands within the nineteenth century New Zealand gothic mode: an ‘ethnographic gothic’, which concentrated on ostensibly ‘horrific’ aspects of pre-European Māori culture, and a ‘settler gothic’, preoccupied with the sense of bodily and mental displacement that often accompanied the colonial experience. Both of these strands, I shall argue, were deeply concerned with articulating – and justifying – the project of settlement itself. Each provided writers with a way of responding to a colonial landscape marked by all-too-obvious sites of prior possessions and dispossessions.
Disarticulated or stumbled-upon Māori remains abound in nineteenth-century scientific and ethnographic accounts of New Zealand places.” (pp.36-37)

Here are some comments that I found particularly interesting:

“The gothic features buried in nineteenth-century New Zealand writing have received relatively little attention from cultural critics, who, like Lydia Wevers, have often assumed that New Zealand possesses ‘almost no gothic’ literature. Even the contributors to a recent collection of essays on the topic, Gothic NZ, the introduction to which takes issue with Wevers’s statement, almost entirely overlook New Zealand’s early literary history. Instead, they concentrate on twentieth- and twenty-first-century film, art, and architecture and elements of contemporary goth subculture. Symptomatic of this failure to look backwards is Misha Kavka’s contribution, which concludes that New Zealand simply ‘lacks the history to produce a properly haunted house’. However, it is not so much the house that is the site of haunting in nineteenth-century accounts of the New Zealand uncanny as it is the landscape. As Judith Richardson notes in Possessions, her study of ghost stories in the Hudson Valley, gothic understandings of landscape tend to crystallize in areas that experience disruptions in their human history. In upstate New York, she writes, frequent population movements led later immigrants to see the land’s earlier inhabitants, whether Native American or Dutch, as somehow ‘spooky’, their histories unknown and unknowable even though they had shared the same landscape. The region’s rich legacy of ghost stories, she argues, arose in part from a basic ‘uncertainty about what had gone on here’, an anxiety about history that became displaced, as ‘hauntedness’, onto the land itself.” (pp.39-40)

“…the language of gothic fiction provided a means of expressing – and, perhaps, assuaging – anxieties over the human history of landscapes in a settler colony.” (p.41)

“When, in the early 1890s, Whanganui-based travel writer Margaret Bullock approached the Auckland Star with an idea for a new novel about Marion du Fresne’s 1772 expedition to New Zealand, she was told that the natural form for this story to take would be the ‘shocker’. Although she maintained that her motivations in writing were basically ethnographic – to ‘preserve the memory of manners and customs now obsolete’ – the novel’s storytelling mode was that of the sensation novel. The finished work, eventually published in 1894 as Utu: A Story of Love, Hate, and Revenge, was a thoroughgoing attempt to habituate the conventions of gothic and sensation fiction to New Zealand environs.” (p.42)

“Taking a phrase from Edward Said, John O’Leary has recently pointed to the importance of ‘tableaux of queerness’ in nineteenth-century New Zealand ethnographic fiction. These dramatic set-pieces, usually involving acts of violence or cruelty, showcase ‘the exotic, bizarre, and unusual elements of an alien culture’, and implicitly celebrate or justify its eventual destruction. Throughout Utu, Bullock relies on a similar technique to alienate her readers from the novel’s Māori subject matter. She deploys Māori – and particularly Māori bodies – for lurid or sensational effect. The French, meanwhile, witness these scenes in captivated horror.” (p.43)

Commenting on ‘the eagerness of amateur archeologists to find evidence of Māori cannibalism’ and the desire to interpret the discovery of bones where Europeans would not expect to find them, King notes that: “Stigmatizing the Māori burial place as the remains of a cannibal feast was one way of neutralizing its power as a sign or prior possession, while at the same time heightening its potential as a site of horror. Traditional claims of Māori land tenure rested not so much on bloodlines as on bones – the presence of ancestral burial sites on a particular piece of land and the right to be buried there oneself. If, as Utu observes, native bones therefore had the ‘potential’ to ‘saturate’ the land in which they lie with the ‘sanctity’ of tapu (Bullock, p.85), the accusation of cannibalism was a means of aggressively reasserting the hierarchy between ‘civilized’ and ‘savage’. It acted to delegitimize any potential relationship between the native body and the landscape in which it lay. The anxieties involved in this process are [-p.50] reflected in the heightened, gothicized descriptions of historic cannibalism in nineteenth-century writing. They inadvertently reveal the degree to which both literary and scientific accounts relied on fictive tropes for persuasive effect. A particularly literary imagination was needed to fill the epistemological gap between the evidence of indigenous cannibalism (such as it was), and European certainty that it had taken place.
There was, however, another more subtle way for settler writing to dispel what Warren Cariou calls the ‘neocolonial uncanny’ – that ‘lurking sense that the places settlers call home are not really theirs’.” (pp.49-50)

Writing about nineteenth-century Australian fiction, Gerry Turcotte has suggested that the gothic is ‘the ideal Colonial mode’. Just as the protagonists in gothic fiction often find themselves in ‘an alien place’ where they are ‘tried and tested’, colonists, he writes, are literally on ‘alien territory’, a landscape in which they are ‘uprooted, estranged’, and often ‘terrified’. … Turcotte’s observations apply as much to the New Zealand literary past as to the Australian one. In fact, there is a long – and long overlooked ‘prehistory’ of gothic writing in New Zealand that deserves systematic excavation. While Utu is perhaps the most ornate and self-conscious example of a gothic text in the buried canon of nineteenth-century New Zealand novels, it is by no means the only one to rehearse the themes of the ‘ethnographic gothic’. ‘Queer tableaux’ and luridly extended descriptions of cannibalism feature prominently in other novels of the period that contain pre-European Māori subject matter. John White’s Te Rou: Or, The Maori at Home, for instance, devotes an entire chapter to the subject of ‘Cooking a Dead Slave’, describing in obsessive (and, supposedly, ethnographically correct) detail one hapu’s preparation and consumption of human flesh. These passages bear witness to the Victorian appetite for stories of cannibalism on the colonial fringe. In this form, the ‘ethnographic gothic’ seemed to offer, as Patrick Brantlinger observes, textual proof of the ‘demonic “darkness”‘ that Britain’s colonial subjects dwelt in prior to annexation, knowledge that in turn served retrospectively to justify imperial intervention.
The colonial gothic, however, was not merely a source of horror. As Barr’s handling of the ‘lost race’ theme in Mihawhenua suggests, the gothic also hinted at a way of settling as well as unsettling.” (p.51)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Edmund G C King (2010) Towards a Prehistory of the Gothic Mode in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand Writing. Journal of New Zealand Literature 28(2); pp.35-37

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