Book Review: Athens to Aotearoa, edited by Tatum Jeff

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_athens_to_aotearoa.jpgHow does New Zealand art engage with its classical inheritance? Not the second-nature parts we’re barely conscious of, but the vestigial, alien stuff – gods and gorgons and all that? Critics and artists offer their takes in the essays collected in Athens to Aotearoa.

It’s another cross-marketing success from VUP – craftily, the blurb leads with the glamour of “New Zealand’s most important artistic voices” and backends poor old dowdy criticism. It’s very accessible for an academic text; I pieced together my knowledge of the ancient world mostly from films starring pro wrestlers but I could understand most of it. The only exception was Tom Stevenson’s essay on Xena: Warrior Princess, which clearly wasn’t written for readers who were five when the show went off the air – was this show really so central to national identity? And how’s Xena pashing Hercules one episode and Julius Caesar the next? Baffling.

The artists’ essays are mostly theory-conscious enough to blur with the more academic stuff, but Witi Ihimaera’s collection-opener, “What If Cyclops Was Alive and Well and Living in a Cave in Invercargill?”, is breezy and wonderful. Other highlights are essays by Sharon Matthews and Geoffrey Miles on James K. Baxter, obviously an especially rich subject here, and Peter Whiteford’s incisive essay on Anna Seward’s Homer-invoking Elegy on Captain Cook. Quality’s high throughout. There are no bad essays here, although the final piece, Arlene Holmes-Henderson’s comparative study of Classics as a school subject in NZ and the UK, is the kind of graphs-and-stats thing a casual reader’s apt to flick through at speed.

As you’d expect from a collection originating in a conference theme, there’s no overall thesis advanced in these essays, and their eclecticism and often minute focus sometimes makes the classical world feel like a strangely niche subject for study, like “The Car in New Zealand Pop Music” or “Wigs in Poetry”. Where it did reach for a deeper point, I wasn’t always convinced. When classicist Simon Perris, in his engaging piece on Maui and Orpheus, writes of “Māori-classical-Pakeha Triculturalism”, it felt a bit like a mycologist arguing for the cultural centrality of the mushroom.

I also would’ve been keen to see something more evaluative. The really interesting questions Athens to Aotearoa raises, about the use of an imagined Greece to mediate Māori-Pakeha cultural dialogue, are just suggested instead of being really dug into and interrogated. There’s definitely room to argue that the implications are more ambiguous than the fairly rosy bicultural picture we get here; when we compare Maui to Orpheus, do we make the myth resonate deeper or culturally streamroll it, strip it of its weird particularity?

But it’s far from the worst thing for an academic text to suggest there’s a lot more to be written about the subject, even/especially one so seemingly niche. Athens to Aotearoa is a bit of a miscellany, but an intriguing, consistently engaging miscellany. It’s an obvious must-read for anyone interested in classics and New Zealand art, and the response essays probably will be too.

Reviewed by Joseph Barbon

Athens to Aotearoa
edited by Tatum Jeff
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561766

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