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Stick this in your pipe, Roger Horrocks, and smoke it: your ‘anti-intellectual’ essay sucks

In which Paul Litterick reads our Monday extract, the one by Roger Horrocks about how New Zealanders are anti-intellectual, and says: “Bollocks.”

Like many readers of The Spinoff, I was moved by Roger Horrocks’s essay on the plight of the intellectual in New Zealand. Of course, as I am sure you will recognise, it is only an abbreviated version of his Short History of The New Zealand Intellectual, included in the recently published collection of his work, Re-inventing New Zealand; to this I turned immediately, hoping for further elucidation.

On the first page of A Short History, Horrocks writes, “I could see that a history of that subject would indeed be short.” He finished his essay 42 pages later. His history is not short, but then neither is it a history. It is a long and bitter polemic against the unfairness of it all, about people who write newspaper columns mocking people who talk about Foucault. It includes several examples of this unfairness, episodes in the history of New Zealand culture that usually seem to involve Gordon McLauchlan.

As an example, when an artist called Merilyn Tweedie who pretends to be a collective called et al. was chosen to represent New Zealand at an art festival in Venice, people laughed like drains, because she was best known for a work in which a portable toilet brayed like a donkey. These people knew nothing about art but they knew that sending her to Venice was a waste of public money, and said so in their newspaper columns. In fact, “All the main newspaper columnists joined in the witch hunt, including Jim Hopkins and Gordon McLauchlan.”

Horrocks is particularly aggrieved about Gordon McLauchlan’s involvement in witch hunts because, as he says in relation to another incident, McLaughlan was long regarded “as the Herald’s most high-brow columnist, and letters to the editor often took him to task for being a woolly-woofter.” Despite being a woolly-woofter, McLaughlan betrayed the intellectuals on these occasions and others. Fortunately, Horrocks has nothing to say about the brow of Jim Hopkins.

Some people who do know about art joined the witch hunt: “Art dealer John Gow and art consultant Hamish Keith appeared as experts who had decided it was advantageous on this occasion to side with the populists.” Not only that, but this very serious matter was treated with levity by Kim Hill, “who is known as Radio NZ’s most intellectual interviewer,” but who “could not resist making et al. jokes, such as introducing Peter Biggs of Creative NZ as ‘Peter Bogs.’”

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It is difficult being an intellectual in New Zealand because people who are not clever will criticise you, and people who are clever and who should be on your side will make fun of you. What is an intellectual to do? There is no point in hanging around the university hoping to have a conversation about Gramsci or Foucault, because “Common room discussions are less likely to be about ideas than about gossip, sport, overseas trips, parking problems, restaurants, wine, and other topics typical of any middle-class group.” You could go to a meeting, but “Official university meeting focus mainly on regulations and budget problems.”

Maybe the thing to do is go to book launches. I went to the launch of Re-inventing New Zealand, with the hope of seeing some intellectuals, and the fear of seeing some others. Fortunately, the intellectual I once described as “so far up himself they call him the human Klein bottle” was absent, probably working on his latest book. The intellectual I once named the Emeritus Predator was also elsewhere, probably working on his latest student. Gordon McLauchlan, sadly, also was not present.

Instead, Mr Richard von Sturmer spoke with passion and at some length about the Eighties and about the Plight of the Intellectual in New Zealand. I found myself in the plight of a man with an empty glass furthest from the bar. The author spoke as well, to thank all those without whom this would not have been possible. He did not say, as he has said before, “I have developed a way of talking about art or ideas in public that is cryptic and flavoured with colloquialisms and down-to-earth comments, so I am not embarrassed to be overheard.” But then he was among friends.

It seems nobody was talking about Gramsci or Foucault, Paul de Man or Maurice Merleau-Ponty. I had hoped to quote from Bill Pearson’s Fretful Sleepers, since that is what intellectuals in New Zealand always do. But nobody was listening when I told them that “the only solution to the so-often-talked about plight of the New Zealand artist” is “living not only among but as one of the people and feeling your way into their problems.” So I tried some Bruce Jesson: “The role of the intellectual is to defend the role of the intellectual.” But here, the role of the intellectual was to gossip about the roles of other intellectuals.

A man from Arts told me there had been more Trouble in Art History, which did not come as a surprise. I told somebody else about the art historian who always mispronounced “synecdoche,” but was never corrected, and about the man from Architecture who was found by one of the charladies in the shower with his secretary. As Horrocks says in his essay, New Zealand’s universities promise “first-class sporting and recreational facilities and a friendly, fun atmosphere.”

The wine was good, as were the edibles. The life of an intellectual might have its trials, but at least free wine and cheese are readily available. Besides, as Horrocks writes, New Zealand now has “a thriving café culture, and there are many immigrants from societies that take education and the arts seriously.” It seems it is quite possible nowadays to have an intelligent conversation with somebody, probably a foreigner, about ideas. But you might have to buy him coffee.


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