Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific – and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise –
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Keats, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’
I have made no great discoveries, yet I have explored more of the South Sea than all that have gone before me.
Capt. James Cook
How many times have we picked up an article or book that trumpets its explication of ‘the Pacific’ only to find it is really about the economic miracle of Korea, or Japan, or even Singapore? Any disappointment we may feel (and the phenomenon is so well established that we may not feel a thing) relates not so much to the contents of such works as to the construction of the Pacific, both geographically and as an area lending itself to particular kinds of knowledge. Emphasis on economics and politics has produced a modern distinction between Pacific Rim and Pacific Basin. The circle of the Rim itself tends to be chopped up selectively, often excluding South America, Canada or Australia, depending on the issue in question. It is also an extremely flexible line that can take in the South China Sea countries and mainland Asia – regions that have never interested themselves in the Pacific at all, save for the epic voyage of Cheng Ho (to Africa) and the gold rushes of the late nineteenth century. Japan is the only real exception here, but even then it is arguable that for Japan the Pacific was only a pretext, a passage, a projected self-interest.
This is true of just about every country that has had dealings with the Pacific Basin, or Oceania. Although occasionally there has been an exchange of influences and an interest in the area for its own sake, until very recent times the Basin has been represented not as a political space or an economic one in an active, productive sense, but as a passive receptacle of observation, a space for European adventuring, an area of natural science, history, anthropology and ‘development studies’. As Bernard Smith noted in his pioneering European Vision in the South Pacific, the exploration of the Pacific was performed under the auspices of the empirical science of the Royal Academy, immediately placing the Pacific within the realm of non-civilized Natural Science; even the Noble Savage was so by virtue of his close relationship with Nature.1 For obvious reasons of geographic reality, the Oceanic world’s major production, at least as it is seen from the Western standpoint, has been narratives of sea journeying. The Pacific is figured not as a place to live in but an expanse to cross, a void to be filled in with lines of transit: ploughing the sea. It was the man who charted the void who also showed how vast a space it was. Columbus thought North America was India, having no accurate way of measuring longitude; it was Cook, with the chronometers made famous in literature by Kenneth Slessor’s poem, who determined the real ‘tyranny of distance’.2
Ever since the people of the northern hemisphere started making maps and considering the earth as spherical there has been an urge to ‘colour in’, to efface blank surfaces. (Art and cartography as the graffitist’s impulse!) Australia had to exist because it had already been invented as the Great South Land of the Antipodes – the equal and opposite that would give an elegant symmetry to God’s ideal creation. Oceans could not suffice in such a conception: oceans were threatening gaps that refused to be filled in except by patently feeble and fanciful mermaids, leviathans and breathy cherubs. An ocean was singularly itself, admitting only one name, which either failed to fill the map’s expanse, thereby highlighting its vacancy as resistance to human control, or had to be written so large that it signified a threatening immensity, overwhelming by comparison with the fussy multitude of ant-like scribblings on its edges. The sea, while ever itself, could assume all shapes and guises; it was a protean, fickle medium that admitted no human settlement, only a hasty and problematic nomadry across its surface.3
It is interesting to speculate on the subtle relations between the means of travel, conceptualizations of the world and political policy. The only routes to Australia were sea routes, and the theory of the Great South Land, in sea-going terms, lent itself to Australia’s being imaged as ballast – not so much cargo as dead weight, with no intrinsic value; something to fill a void.4 Apart from the early unpromising landings on the west coast by historical accident, significant contact with Australia came as a result of the scientific ‘ballast theory’ and at the end of a trans-Pacific voyage. Would the policy of terra nullius have been promulgated if the continent had been discovered at the end of an overland expedition through Malaya and Indonesia, one unmotivated by expectation of a global counterweight and not attended by Western post-Homeric images of the sea?
Such thinking about the maritime world is not entirely confined to the West – consider, for instance, the hostile barrier oceans presented to the Brahmin Indian or the demonic conception of the ocean in Colin Johnson’s reconstruction of Tasmanian Aboriginal culture.5 But for countries that are the legacy of Columbus, Magellan and Cook, this deep-seated mode of envisioning seas (with all its attendant attitudes) lies behind the Rim-Basin formulation and the active emphasis on the first term of the dichotomy, on the line rather than the space it delineates. Such habits of mind have a distinct bearing on our present-day Pacific world.
Look at the word ‘basin’, for example: something rather more akin to a sink than a bowl; a container; a vessel that exists to be filled or emptied. Once the Pacific is represented in these terms it becomes apparently more ‘logical’ and unconsciously ‘natural’ to engage in whaling, sea-bed mining and drift-net fishing on one hand and dumping toxic wastes and urban rubbish on the other.6 If the US wants to destroy chemical weapons, then the middle of the Pacific is perhaps as good a place as any to do it. The problem is the thinking that goes with the location: the sea can take it; there’s no-one around anyway. Vacancy here is linked with remoteness. The Nevada or Mojave deserts might equally be imagined as ‘vacant’ spaces for such a venture, but they are not remote for those proposing it, and they are land. Perhaps the US should be encouraged to burn their wastes there: we could be certain they’d take more care. (Equally, the French might consider exploding nuclear devices in the Camargue or one of their Saharan satellites.)
Australia is not immune from this kind of thinking, although it has had a meaningful relationship with the Pacific ever since sea-going vessels came to its shores. For a good deal of Australia’s white history the Pacific has been an economic zone with political implications for a young nation (consider Australia’s long investments in Fiji, for instance, or the ‘Russian threat’ that inspired the construction of coastal forts, or the colonizing of New Guinea). But of late publications have tended to follow the Pacific Rim construction, even though the nation was founded on a host of oceanic contacts and voyages. The seeds of the shift can be found in the pre-existing Western patterns of thought outlined above. In order to establish an imaginative basis for the settlement and construction of the nation, the exploration of the ocean had to be dealt with. Hence those epic and visionary sequences of poetry dubbed ‘Voyager Poetry’ by Douglas Stewart – histories of charting the void, fixing the unstable unknown, finding a real, solid ground for ideals.7 This solid ground, in its turn, was figured on the basis of its imaginative forerunners: the inland deserts became a new oceanic vastness to be fixed and filled. (How much was the quest for an inland sea a product of the kind of symmetrical thinking and oceanic precedent that went into the founding of white Australia?) And the end result of the conceptual framing of these imaginary excursions, after the Mount Disappointments and the Nullarbors, was the same as in the Pacific itself: the testing of nuclear weapons in spaces mistakenly declared vacant and remote, and an emerging story of displaced and contaminated people.
Rolf Boldrewood, in the otherwise landlocked Robbery Under Arms, saw the Pacific as an escape route for Australian ne’er-do-wells, a convenient fictive dumping-ground for troublesome characters.8 Starlight the gentleman bushranger is recaptured in New Zealand, since that is still within the reach of the laws of civilized society, but if he ever makes it to Honolulu, he’s home free. The sea is also the last frontier, ever resistant to the encroachments of squatters’ fences and cockles’ drudgery, and stands at the back of the centrifugal void in the book, the ‘dreadful hollow’. Both have the fascination of attraction and repulsion, offering prospects of idyllic retreat and providing only a vacancy experienced either as tedium or a screen on which adventures may be imagined. Dick Marston discovers a miner’s retreat that harks back in a direct literary line to the story of Robinson Crusoe (one of the first fictions in English of the Pacific); he also thinks he finds evidence of swashbuckling orgies of sex and violence involving earlier occupiers of the hollow, convicts and natives – the stuff of Ballantyne’s Coral Island Pacific.
This contrast – idyllic retreat or adventure playground – may be found in most non-indigenous writing about Oceania, and both elements result from the impositions of fancy upon the space being viewed.9 The viewer is drawn to the conflicting promise of the images (repose and excitement) while being repulsed by their associations of isolation and savagery. Finally the forces of the imaginary location and its realities propel the viewer out and away on further travels. This is the literary world of Louis Becke, who flits from one island to another, sketching in the colours and conflicts and avoiding the continuous narrative that would have to deal with the tedium of life aboard ship.10 It is also the world of Somerset Maugham, where the colours turn drab and the excitement desperately sordid as island-bound colonials go stir-crazy.11
Those who have their gaze fixed on the ocean look ever to the horizon, not at the expanse between, unless it is with ‘wild surmise’ about dreamed-of Utopias: Espiritu Santo, Mu, Erewhon. The urge is to action or to despair: the vacancy is the ever-present challenge that carries with it the viewer’s refusal of recognition. (For a classic example of this, see Poe’s fantastic romance The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.)12 How relieved the early explorers must have been to encounter the Polynesians! The hysterical glorification of their world that ensued must surely have been not just the result of Romantic preconceptions, hospitable local customs and apparent tropical abundance, but also of the delight at finding company, at not having to confront a blank immensity devoid of human presence. Despite the later moralizing and fixations on cannibal savagery that came with the death of Cook and the birth of missions, there remained a sense of kindred feeling for the Polynesian that finds expression in some of Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing, for example, and even in Jack London’s tales of sea-going adventure.13 There is a sense of common cause against the vastness of the sea; the figuring of the Polynesians as successful navigators in the Western tradition (the ‘Vikings of the Sunrise’) not only gives them a dignity consistent with the Western tendency to privilege them over the darker and ‘more savage’ Melanesians, but also allows them to be contained within Western conceptual frames and creates a common tradition that validates European voyaging and settlement in the Pacific. An interesting variation on the conceptualizing of the Pacific from modern Australian experience is Randolph Stow’s Visitants, in which the island world of Melanesia is also inserted into our conception of the Pacific as a space through which the characters move, companions only in their collective estrangement from the world. (In this book it is a short step from travel through existential and oceanic space to space travel through cosmic voids.)14
An early novel that helped to establish anthropology and adventure as the kinds of writing proper to the Pacific is Herman Melville’s semi-autobiographical fiction, Typee.15 The author enters an unspoiled Marquesan community and spends his time lamenting the white man’s ‘fatal impact’ while blithely recording the disruptive effects of his own presence. A hostage-cum-refugee, he claims the privilege of the anthropologist, constructing a panoramic one-way gaze that represents the unknown and the misunderstood in terms of fickleness and flux (in need of a Western systematizing). When he discovers rules, he jumps to claim the immunity of the tourist, converting codes of hospitality into a self-indulgent, somewhat fantastic love affair and flouting taboo in order to gratify his whimsically romantic impulses.
Melville is able to do this because of his own and his readers’ habituation to ways of thinking about the Pacific. The valley of the Taipi becomes another kind of ‘Pacific basin’, voided of a past and a social order. (Melville, quite incorrectly, has the Taipi deny any knowledge of the origins of certain stone platforms, for example, and their villages are often represented as being coextensive with the forest: that is, natural or non-social.)16 Like Moby Dick, the island world becomes a (white) blankness to be inscribed with the marks of contact and conflict occasioned by an authoritative Euro-American presence. It is the lines and scars called into being by the observer that appears to animate and tame into significance the monstrous space of the Pacific world.
This Eurocentric propensity to look to definitive lines rather than what they enclose or how they interconnect (witness the Western fixing of arbitrarily drawn lines amongst a group of stars to form a constellation that ever after takes on set significances) can be seen in a key moment in Typee. Melville’s alter ego encounters a funerary sculpture and dramatizes the moment into meaningful symbolism:
The long leaves of the palmetto drooped over the eaves, and through them you could see the warrior holding his paddle with both hands in the act of rowing, leaning forward and inclining his head, as if eager to hurry on his voyage. Glaring at him for ever, and face to face, was a polished human skull, which crowned the prow of the canoe. The spectral figurehead, reversed in its position, glancing backwards, seemed to mock the impatient attitude of the warrior. (238)
The figure is conceived with all the freight of Western perspective, looking to the horizon, paddling actively and purposefully towards some fixed point, despite the mocking face of death. As it happens, the onlooker is told that the chief is paddling towards death and a paradisal afterlife, but the informer puts no interpretation of active urgency or potential despair on the statue at all.
Another moment of primary import in the novel occurs when the narrator is confronted by the gaze of a Taipi chief:
One of them in particular, who appeared to be the highest in rank, placed himself directly facing me, looking at me with a rigidity of aspect under which I absolutely quailed. He never once opened his lips, but maintained his severe expression of countenance, without turning his face aside for a single moment. Never before had I been subjected to so strange and steady a glance; it revealed nothing of the mind of the savage, out it appeared to be reading my own. (116)
The meeting is imbued with the narrator’s uneasiness. His authoritative one-way gaze is challenged. The subject encounters what otherwise is seen as an object here demanding to be seen as another subject, and the mirroring is profoundly disturbing. Habits of thought and perception can only interpret this as a conflictual mirroring: either the other must be seen as a subject and therefore a radical challenge to the authoritative presence of the narrator, or he must continue to be seen as part of a blank world, in which case the staring brown eyes become mirrors, again challenging by reflecting the viewer’s own vacancy and thus removing any distinction between onlooker and looker, viewer and viewed.
This moment perhaps marks the most significant contact between a young Melville and the Pacific world, leading him later to figure the Pacific as both more safely distinct and more threateningly other. It does, however, signify a real contact, a recognition, that is otherwise absent in the adventure romance of charming captivity, and one that anticipates the genuine challenge now issuing from indigenous writers of the Basin.
Both of Melville’s moments of significance gesture towards darkness and void. Both of them have at their back the experience of ocean that links and separates the voyagers from the Rim and the inhabitants of the Basin. The Void is a fundamental part of Polynesian tradition too, just as a land-sea dichotomy is in many places the basis of conceptual frameworks permeating religious belief and social practice. What writers like Patricia Grace and Albert Wendt have been suggesting is a revisioning of the Pacific void from a Polynesian perspective: not just as a sterile absence and vacancy, but as a source of creative, living potential.
There is no question that the void can be as threatening for the Pacific person as for any other human being. In its actively hostile mode it can lead an old chief to madness (Faleasa Osovai in Wendt’s Pouliuli) or disaffected youth to delinquency, violence and suicide (see some of Bruce Stewart’s stories in Tama or Wendt’s Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree).17 In Grace’s novel Potiki, the void is partly figured as a wasteland area at the margins of land and sea, sterile and negating of all human effort. The void as darkness is also the essence and location of death.18
Nevertheless, Polynesian representations of darkness, death and the void are far more fluid and ambiguous than Western ones. The culture-hero Maui ends his career in the classic locus of death, which is also the site of birth: the vagina of Hine Nui te Po. The death goddess herself (literally the lady of darkness) has a double identity, being originally the lady of light shamed by her creator-father’s incestuous generative urges, and this ambivalence is at the very heart of the Polynesian creation myth. Here the void is the seed of an evolution in which gradations of darkness generate each other until light dawns. The process is described in the Hawaiian Kumulipo and finds a new expression as the preface to Grace’s Potiki, in which it serves also as a model for the artist’s creative drive:
From the centre,
From the nothing,
Of not seen,
Of not heard,
And a creeping forward,
To an outer circle,
Tihe Mauriora. (7)
In Patricia Grace’s conception of a Maori novel there is a sacrificial death of the artist’s personality as well as a new transformed presence within the work. The evolutionary spiral of creation is also the spiral motif of the unfolding fern-frond that is basic to Maori art and is here incorporated into the ‘new’ art of telling stories in print. Her primary tale is of a community’s resistance to the forceful incursions of a land developer whose efforts result in the violent death of the youngest child in the narrator’s family. After a key confrontation with the developer, the doomed child has a sudden insight into the way the man sees his people: ‘What he saw was brokenness, a broken race. He saw in my granny, my Mary and me a whole people, decrepit, deranged, deformed.’ (102) The book effects a transformation of this tragedy, via the mythic conception of time and generation and adaptive communal sharing. The success of the novel lies in its power to convince us that there is another way of seeing the deprivations of the Maori people, that the things recorded in the developer’s fixed and negating vision are equally present in a more flexible and positive interpretation. Stories work on a rhythm of both expelling breath and inhaling, patterns require both line and space; they are not of beginnings or endings but mark ‘only a position on the spiral’ (180); water can destroy but it also transforms, liberates and feeds; death is also a seed of life, ‘a coiled spring’ (154).
For Albert Wendt, darkness and the void are symbols denoting a more individual and existentialist vision, but they also owe something to the ambiguity of Polynesian conceptualizing. In both the short novel (now a lively film) Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree and the longer Leaves of the Banyan Tree, in which Flying Fox is the central section, the oceanic void is represented by a lava field.19 Blackness, emptiness, blank space, denial of social and individual identity are the primary associations of this image, but as the image itself contains the seeds of ambiguous energies, so the things it stands for also have a double nature. While the lava plain is rock – a fixed, dark vacancy of death and destruction – it shows its fluid origins in its very formation, cooled waves of molten fire attesting to the generative force of subterranean oceans. It also reveals further metamorphic possibilities in the cracks that give refuge to the germinating seed. Again, there are allusions to Polynesian creation mythology, the Samoan version having the world emerge as various volcanic formations of rock, and the novel referring to the death goddess: ‘her sacred channel is all lava’ (226). While the lava plain negates the pretensions and hypocrisies of human society and suggests the isolation of the Islander in the vast wastes of the Pacific, it also offers an iconoclastic rebirth, radical freedom for the individual and possibilities for self-realization in a more authentic mode of living that is as opposed to the fixed tyrannies of indigenous tradition as it is to slavish consumerist fixations stemming from the domination of western modernity:
there where the peace lies, where all the dirty little places and lies and monuments we make to ourselves mean nothing because lava can be nothing else but lava … A flood of lava everywhere. But in some places you see small plants growing through the cracks in the lava, like funny stories breaking through your stony mind … Boy, it made me see things so clear for once … That we are all equal in the silence, in the nothing, in the lava. (208)
These challenges to reinterpret the void as experienced in the Pacific Basin, and the reference to funny stories, bring me to a concluding mention of the work of Epeli Hau’ofa. He focuses more robustly on the vitality of a human presence in the Pacific. His satiric fictions (Tales of the Tikongs and Kisses in the Nederends) present no area of vacancy at all, but a bustling social world of variety and comic resourcefulness beset by internal pretensions and contradictions as well as the depredations of multinational experts. In the light of all the above, his work, whether playful or serious (such as the sociological study Our Crowded Islands), constitutes an equally important statement for the outside constructor of Pacific visions.20 The Basin is full, and it is defined not by its rim but by its contents. Oceania is not a space, but a place; not a blank on the map to be traversed or filled in, but a series of habitations.
For the ‘developed’ peoples of the Pacific Rim and beyond who see the boundary but not what it contains, the world of Hau’ofa, Grace and Wendt remains a challenge – perhaps the challenge of our times, in that the emerging global politics of ecology demand a reconceptualizing of the oceans of the world.
- Bernard Smith, European Vision in the South Pacific (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1960).
- Geoffrey Blainey expands on this in The Tyranny of Distance (Macmillan, Melbourne, 1968); see also Kenneth Slessor, ‘Five Visions of Captain Cook’, in his Selected Poems (Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1977).
- See José Rabassa, ‘Allegories of the Atlas’, in Francis Barker et al. (eds), Europe and its Others (University of Essex, Colchester, 1986), vol. 2, pp. 1-15, in which he analyses the Eurocentric, universalizing discourse of cartography. Two invaluable works for considering representations of the Pacific are Bernard Smith’s study of art and Bill Pearson’s Rifled Sanctuaries: some views of the Pacific in Western Literature to 1900 (Auckland University Press/OUP, 1984).
- t might be interesting to pursue the history of ballast in Australia. Much of the early settlement was constructed from ships’ ballast (bricks and timber), while other Pacific ballast took the form of plunder (Drake’s booty, sandalwood, sealskins and slaves; later gold, wool, wheat, iron ore etc.).
- Colin Johnson, Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World (Hyland House, Melbourne, 1983). For an interesting treatment of the Fiji Indian relationship to the ocean, see Subramani’s story collection The Fantasy Eaters (Three Continents Press, Washington, 1988).
- See Pacific Islands Monthly, July 1990, which features these issues.
- Thomas Shapcott, ‘Developments in the Voyager Tradition of Australian Verse’, in Chris Tiffin (ed.). South Pacific Images (SPACLALS, St Lucia, 1978), pp. 93-106.
- Rolf Boldrewood, Robbery Under Arms (1881) (Penguin Books, Ringwood, 1985).
- I think it was Rider Haggard who lamented that the geographers had left nowhere to the romancer’s imagination. One of the attractions of the Pacific, while it seemed to fill with deeds and voyages, is probably that it always offered the prospect of lost worlds such as Pitcairn, celebrated in a host of ‘Bounty’ romances.
- Louis Becke, By Reef and Palm (T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1894), and a host of other titles.
- Somerset Maugham, The Trembling of a Leaf (1921) (Mutual Publishing, Honolulu, 1986).
- Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838) (Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1904).
- Robert Louis Stevenson, Island Nights’ Entertainments (Scribner, New York, 1893); Jack London, South Sea Tales (Macmillan, New York, 1911).
- Randolph Stow, Visitants (1979) (Pan Books, London, 1981).
- Herman Melville, Typee (1845) (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1972).
- For a discussion of Melville’s reworking of reality as fiction see the section in Greg Dening, Islands and Beaches (Melbourne University Press, 1980).
- Albert Wendt, Pouliuli (Longman Paul, Auckland, 1977); Bruce Stewart, Tama (Penguin Books, Auckland, 1989); Albert Wendt, Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree (Longman Paul, Auckland, 1974.
- Patricia Grace, Potiki (Viking/Penguin, Auckland, 1986).
- Albert Wendt, Leaves of the Banyan Tree (1977) (Penguin Books, Auckland, 1981).
- Epeli Hau’ofa, Tales of the Tikongs (Longman Paul, Auckland, 1983); Kisses in the Nederends (Penguin, Auckland, 1987); Our Crowded Islands (Institute of Pacific Studies, Suva, 1977).