Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The past is never dead. It's not even past.

The past is never dead. It's not even past -  William Faulkner, American novelist (Requiem for a Nun, 1951.)

I was reminded of Faulkner's quote this week amidst the venting of anger in and around television presenter Paul Holmes' article printed in the New Zealand Herald a few days ago. This article has since been 'answered' by activist and politician Hone Harawira in the Herald, here

We often see a kind of battle of stories in the media, and in general public discourse, often becoming a fight between whose story carries more weight, whose story should gain them the position of power and primacy. A statement that one narrative trumps another.

I'm not going to go so much into the political rights and wrongs of the arguments here. What does strike me though is that in his vitriol Holmes is evoking the memory of his tupuna (ancestors) and their connection with military service. He is using them as authorities and emotional arbiters, saying he wouldn't take them to a Waitangi Day commemoration because of how he feels they would see it. Firstly the point needs to be made that a great many Maori, in fact tens of thousands of living Maori have tupuna who served in wars New Zealand fought in. Paul Holmes does not have sacrifice stories to himself, as indeed no-one does. 

It is though his right to evoke his tupuna and bring forth their suffering in their time into our time, because one is built from the other. Unfortunately the voice Holmes uses, bordering on rabid, makes this point easier to miss. That is a shame, because in evoking the grief and suffering (and the legacy of that) of his tupuna he is in fact calling on the eternal thread of his whakapapa (approximately - geneology) and speaking of it in a permanent present tense. In doing so, he is in fact coming very close to the process by which the Maori protestors he so aggressively dismisses evoke their own whakapapa and tupuna tane (male ancestors) and tupuna wahine (female ancestors.) 

He is calling on inter-generational grief, as an emotional, psychological and symbolic force in the present. 

If Holmes took the time to think about it he might realize how close he is to the emotional truth within the Maori position and the view of indigenous and minority people worldwide, because it is part of our universality as human beings, as the product of our pasts. As Faulkner said - the past is never dead. It's not even past. 

We are all, in very deep and often unacknowledged ways, largely the products of our pasts, and decisions made in the present and future often evoke our pasts. Context is so much more than we can see with a surface glance at any one moment. Faulkner himself lived in the American deep south, whose economy was built so much on the backs of two hundred years of slavery. It is not a question that Faulkner himself did not keep slaves, because so much of what he had and laid his eyes on in his time was built on the backs of those slaves in their time, and in that sense the separation between times breaks down. 

Indigenous peoples worldwide are so often told to move on, that the past is in the past. But who of us is really separated from those before us, or should ever wish to be. If Holmes feels the presence of his ancestors with him now, I respect that, but he must then respect that others can, will and do do the same. 

Moving on suggests to me themes of survival and growth. Not of denial. 
Reminds me of one other quote from William Faulkner. 

Between grief and nothing, I will take grief. 
(The Wild Palms/If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem. 1939)

It has taken me a very long time to understand that. 

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