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New Zealand's Existentialist Men Alone: A Survey of Their Development from the 1890s until the 1970s

Deepsouth v.4 n.2 (Spring 1998)
Copyright (c) 1999 by Dale Benson
Dale Benson - University of Otago, Department of English
  All rights reserved.

In New Zealand Literature: A Survey E. H. McCormick defines the Man Alone as "the solitary, rootless nonconformist, who in a variety of forms crops up persistently in New Zealand writing".[1] For the purposes of this article I will add to McCormick's definition that since the late-nineteenth century some of the Men and Women Alone in New Zealand literature have anticipated or responded to existentialist concepts. To demonstrate how, I will trace their response to experience through a range of passages from nineteenth- and twentieth-century New Zealand narratives. I must emphasise, however, that the New Zealand brand of existentialism is not a formal philosophy but is as Max Charlesworth describes in The Existentialists and Jean-Paul Sartre "more an intellectual mood or atmosphere than a coherent creed or body of doctrine; more an outlook or mind-set than a philosophical party-line; more a method or approach than a school of thought".[2]

In its widest context the existentialist mood refers to the feeling experience by many western people in the twentieth century that meanings were no longer stable. Much nineteenth century thought is characterized by the certainty that it is possible to arrive at the ultimate reason for anything. A phenonenon could either be traced back to God's will or people could trust in the secular God, Science, to eventually classify its characteristics and then to modify them if they were somehow unsatisfactory. But during the twentieth century, for the increasing number of people who do not believe in God and who have learned to doubt the efficacy of scientific discovery and for those who no longer believe in the basis of their laws or moral behaviour, compelling questions arise. Why should they bother to be virtuous if there is no reward or punishment after death? What if the human condition is to struggle to survive in an unpredictable world? What if the struggle ends in death, end of story? A useful explanation of the existentialist mood may be derived from the infinitive of the verb "to exist". One of the tendencies of modern atheistic existentialism is to focus on what actually exists, not seeing things as created by an all-powerful god or trying to fit phenomena into a rationally extrapolated framework such as Darwin's theory of evolution. An existentialist way of thinking is that individuals can take nothing for granted except the fact that they will die.

In the context of New Zealand literature the existentialist mood is based on popularized versions of ideas which have emerged from writings by Albert Camus or Jean-Paul Sartre, with bits and pieces of Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky thrown it for good measure. As I will demonstrate presently, however, few New Zealand authors actually identified their ideas as existentialist.

The earliest anticipations of existentialist ideas in New Zealand literature occur in novels and short stories which could be described as "pre-existentialist". Some of New Zealand's early fiction reflects the rootlessness, isolation and alienation which the early British pioneers and settlers experienced when they could not explain their new environment with the definitions they had brought with them. Although what they felt resembles the angst suffered by characters in modern existentialist fiction, the early migrants could not be described as existentialists because they did not see their troubles as an inevitable part of the human condition. On the contrary, their fiction was distinctly influenced by a Myth of Progress which assumed that God or science would ameliorate their situation as they tamed the bush and created a better Britain in the South Seas. Yet a handful of articulate Men Alone such as Richard Raleigh in George Chamier's Philosopher Dick: Adventures and Contemplations of a New Zealand Shepherd (1891) and Purcell in William Satchell's The Greenstone Door (1914) questioned the veracity of the myth and could be described as beginning to engage with existentialist themes.

Philosopher Dick provides an early example of literary pre-existentialism when in the following excerpt the narrator reveals the thoughs of Richard Raleigh (known as Dick), who has recently emigrated from England to begin a new life as a boundary walker at a high country sheep station. Having just explained to his journal Darwin's theories about the survival of the fittest and how they have overtaken his faith in God, Dick is overcome by self-pity. His herd of sheep have just run over the edge of a cliff, instinctively fleeing the wild dogs which have instinctively chased them. Dick cannot help thinking that his own life is as determined as that of the sheep, and he questions the purpose of his existence:

He asked himself what joy he had in life, and for what purpose did he exist. Poor solitary waif, adrift on dark and troublous waters, ever contending in an aimless and useless struggle.

[His relief would be]

To die! A momentary pang for eternal relief. There, at his feet, lay the gaping chasm; a ready grave awaiting him. One step further, one bound into space, and all would be over.[3]

Although Chamier's diction belongs to the nineteenth century, the sentiments his narrator expresses could describe modern angst. This next passage, however, illustrates why Philosopher Dick is more accurately described a pre-existentialist rather than an existentialist novel. Just before Dick plunges over the brink "`a small still voice'" speaks to him, echoing the biblical cadences of Carlyle's Sartor Resartus:
"Remember! ... [your life] was a gift of Heaven, Pause, madman! Reflect! Thou canst not offend against any of the ordinances of nature without incurring retribution. Every breach of the moral law brings its punishment, even in small things, as thou knowest; and would thou then brave them all, commit the irreparable crime, and appear before thy Creator as a murderer?[4]
Since Dick heeds the voice, the narrative about him will end happily. Eventually he will marry and become a productive member of society, thus maintaining two significant conventions in New Zealand literature: that fellowship is vital if individuals and society are to survive, and murder is wrong.

Satchell's The Greenstone Door is a historical romance set between 1830 and 1860. Its conventional Victorian plot recounts the story of Cedric Tregarthen, his fantastic rescue from the Maori who have killed his family, his love-troubles with the beautiful Helenora and how he resolves them. Although parts of the main plot could be described as pre-existentialist, I will focus on the subplot about Cedric's foster-father, Purcell, a mysterious character who is a Victorian New Zealand version of the Byronic hero.

Satchell presents as melodrama Purcell's fight against the British who will inevitably conquer the Maori and take their land, recounting with enthusiasm the unlikely and sensational details of his heroic life and death. Yet in the following excerpt from Purcell's final letter before the Britist execute him for treason his lucidly expressed decision to fight alongside the Maori anticipates some of the ideas Camus would later espouse:

I am not under any illusions as to the result of the war; nor do I expect to achieve any good by allying myself with the native cause. But for thirty years these have been my people, and for thirty years their country has been my home. I shall not go far afield, and you need expect from me no deeds of derring-do; but I should be a sorry knave if I deserted my friends in their need, or failed to strike a blow in defence of those I love.[5]
Camus expresses similar ideas in his Chroniques, here translated by David Spritzen:
I realize that it is not my role to transform either the world or man: I have neither sufficient virtue nor insight for that. But it may be to serve, in my place, those few values without which even a transformed world would not be worth living in, and man, even if "new", would not deserve to be respected.[6]
During the 1930s and 40s when Frank Sargeson and John Mulgan debunked the Myth of Progress with Men Alone who struggled constantly and yet could not achieve a conventional happy ending, the world-view assumed by their narratives also resembles Camus'. Although there is almost no possibility of direct influence there are obvious similarities between Bill in Sargeson's "That Summer" (written between 1938 and 1941), Johnson in Mulgan's Man Alone (1939) and Meursault in Camus' The Outsider (first published in French in 1942): all three are drifters and their narratives place a particular emphasis on their present tense sensations as well as on their inability to evaluate them.

In his 1954 lecture "Back to the Desert" James K. Baxter suggests a reason for the similarity between Bill and Meursault:

In That Summer the myth of the lost man who has no place in society and scarcely desires it, is fully developed. One is struck immediately by the similarity of the world-view implied in this story and that which French existentialists have given a philosophical context and some French novelists a voice. (It is surely no accident that Sargeson's book was lately translated into French.)[7]
Baxter's reference is to Cet ÚtÚ-lÓ which was published in Paris in 1946.[8]

Baxter further comments that Sargeson's insistence on detail is "characteristic of writing that verges on existentialism", and that "the detail is a vast web stretched over an appalling inner void; at times it wears thin and one can see the blackness underneath".[9] This emptiness is evident in the following passage from "That Summer" which Baxter provides as example:

I couldn't decide what to do to fill in the time, and I couldn't keep my mind off thinking about a job. I tried reading my True Story but it was no good. I'd just lie on my bed but that was no good either, and I'd have to keep getting up to walk up and down. I'd stop in the middle of the floor to roll a cigarette and listen to them downstairs. I'd think, my God I've got to have someone to talk to, but even after I'd turned out the light and had my hand on the door knob I'd go back and just flop on the bed. But the last time I flopped I must have dozed off, because I woke up lying in my clothes, and I wondered where the hell I was. I'd been dreaming, and I still seemed to be in the dream, because there wasn't one sound I could hear no matter how hard I listened.[10]
Not only does Bill's lack of work implicitly question the validity of the Victorian Myth of Progress, but the entire passage suggests that his isolation is inherent to the human condition.

Yet Sargeson cannot be described as an existentialist writer. Although what happens to his characters often has existential overtones, they do not explicitly acknowledge their existentialist freedom.

In Man Alone Mulgan provides an existential view of Johnson's escape through the Kaimanawa Ranges after he has accidentally shot Stenning, the farmer he was working for. A main theme of the novel is the protagonist's aloneness in an indifferent universe, as in this passage where

Johnson lost all real count of time there in the dark loneliness of the bush. There was sound all the time, of the river running, and birds from early morning to the owls calling at night, but he felt within himself a great solitude, a feeling which had never troubled him before in the long periods of his life that he had spent alone. There was a heaviness of the bush that pressed upon him, and weighed him down, until the sound of his own voice was startling to him.[11]
Yet because Johnson comes from the well-established line of Man Alone heroes that includes Dick from Philosopher Dick and Cedric from The Greenstone Door and because his trek though the bush is a modern version of the wilderness trials they survive, like Sargeson, Mulgan cannot be described as an existentialist writer. After Johnson has been purified by the bush, he too experiences a kind of happy ending when he escapes New Zealand and finds meaning and fellowship as a combatant in the Spanish Civil War.

As I suggest earlier, although both Sargeson and Mulgan independently arrive at ideas similar to Camus', it is unlikely that either of them was directly influenced by the existentialist philosphy. Judging from the situations Dan Davin and Guthrie Wilson explored in their narratives in the 1940s and '50s, however, it is probable that these two authors seriously considered notions which had been conceived by Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche and developed by later existentialist writers.

Yet Davin's and Wilson's novels, even though dressed up in existentialist terms, tend to be motivated by a mixture of nineteenth-century determinism and the Victorian convention that murderers will themselves be killed. In Cliffs of Fall (1945), for example, Davin sets up an existentialist situation to study its implications. He demonstrates with Mark Burke, a Raskolnikov-like character, who murders his pregnant girlfriend to prove that he should be able to because her pregnancy will seriously handicap his future that, carried to its ultimate consequences, atheistic existentialism will lead to murder and suicide. Unlike the Heavenly voice that dissuades Dick from jumping off a cliff, the voice that addresses Mark represents his conscience and goads him into attacking it -- just over the edge of a cliff. Thus even though Davin's novel assumes the absence of God, the convention against murder still operates. That Guthrie Wilson also disapproved of what he thought were the nihilistic consequences of existentialism is evident when, without ever labelling Jack's ideas as existentialist, Wilson causes the protagonist of Strip Jack Naked (1957) to ponder existentialist notions and discuss them with others. When Jack thinks of himself as living beyond the confines of morality, however, Wilson presents him as a hapless victim/criminal whose life is governed by a background which leads him inevitably to murder and self-destruction.

In the excerpt below, Wilson adapts Camus' belief in the importance of fellowship in a meaningless universe to the fellowship tradition which has characterized New Zealand literature since the nineteenth century. Thus after savouring the beauty of his last night alive, Jack's suicide is accompanied by a flash of insight that recalls both Dick's resolution to rejoin conventional society in Philosopher Dick and Meursault's acceptance of his place in an indifferent cosmos on the eve of his execution in The Outsider:

He had reached a position where he saw clearly, and without possibility of rejection, that it was death and only death which caused men to have fellow-feeling at all. It was, he understood, the knowledge that the span of all men was terminable and not within their power to prolong that gave men community, allied in fear against its unstayable march.[12]
Erik de Mauny is one of the few New Zealand writers who responded positively to existentialist ideas. In his The Huntsman in His Career (1949) the protagonist, Villiers, is the first character in New Zealand literature to express existentialist ideas who is neither mentally imbalanced nor so alienated that he is a threat to society. According to D. H. Munro, "he is the first protagonist in New Zealand to realize his existential freedom and live."[13]

Although like Mulgan, Sargeson, Davin and Wilson de Mauny does not specifically use the word "existentialism" in his novel, he would have been familiar with Sartre's existentialist writings. In 1948 Secker and Warburg published his translation of Sartre's Portrait of the Anti-Semite. Evidence of Sartre's influence is apparent when Villiers explains to his girlfriend, Laure, that the scene of Cleaves' death manifests "a sense of something irrevocable, absolute". In the excerpt below there is a suggestion in his reference to the empty backdrop that Huntsman in His Career> may have been based on The Flies, Sartre's existentialist version of Aeschylus' Orestia.

"I felt it once, seeing a Greek tragedy on the stage: the white exterior of a temple, in front of which all the passions raged -- and all the time, behind the absolute tragedy, the absolute emptiness. The absolute emptiness of the sky behind the temple."[14]
Villiers is one of a group of soldiers ordered to track and kill a murderer named Milsom. When Villiers shoots the hunted man his thoughts recall passages from Sartre's Dirty Hands, a play which explores the notion that sometimes people must do apparently bad things for the greater good:
If I do not do this, someone else will have to do it. It is an act from which there is no escape. I will kill this man because pity and understanding are not enough, because it is only the act which has reality. But it is my act, by accepting it, I make it my own. If it should be the act of another, I should have to consent to it, because I should have no power over it. But by making it my own, I make the responsibility mine: and I do not consent.[15]
Unlike the majority of New Zealand novels that consider existentialist ideas, Redmond Wallis' Point of Origin (1962) explicitly labels concepts as originating from Dostoyevsky or Sartre. Yet when Shona quotes Dostoyevsky to the protagonist, Peter, saying that "If God did not exist, everything would be permitted",[16] Wallis uses the protagonist to prove how wrong she is. Then, Point of Origin firmly supports the conventional Victorian values maintained in New Zealand's early literature. Thus when Peter despairs that he had lost all he knows to be worthwhile and contemplates jumping from the spire of Christchurch Cathedral, he is not just a suicidal sufferer of postwar angst:
It was so very simple. All he had to do was remove his elbows from the balustrade and let his body curve forward as a gymnast lets his body curve and flip around parallel bars .... The distance was more than sufficient. He would burst when he hit the pavement.[17]
He also resembles the protagonist of Philosopher Dick. Although there is no "still, small voice" from Heaven to wake Peter from his thoughts of self-destruction, after he has decided not to kill himself he is like Dick in that he rejoins society and prepares to enjoy a happy and productive life with the woman he loves.

Marilyn Duckworth's A Gap in the Spectrum (1959) appears to have been profoundly influenced by Sartre's novel Nausea, yet the author says that she had not read any existentialist literature before she wrote it. Her explanation for the similarity of themes and events is that in the late 50s in New Zealand, "existentialism was in the air". Diana Clouston, its protagonist, wakes up in London suffering from amnesia. Like Roquentin, she is filled with panic: "[her] sense of insecurity grew. This was a world of extremes. Anything could happen .... Anything, anything". By the end of the story, however, Diana has developed into a female version of the New Zealand Man Alone. She has learned to control her panic and consciously takes responsibility for her destiny.

So does the protagonist in Graham Billing's Forbush and the Penguins (1965). When Dick Forbush who has gone to Antarctica to study a colony of penguins realizes that the environment is indifferent both to the fate of the penguins and to his own destiny, his suicidal depression similar to Dick Raleigh's in Philosopher Dick. Both protagonists survive, but for reasons that differentiate pre-existentialist from consciously existentialist literature. When Dick Raleigh despairs that his life is as determined as a sheep's, a heavenly voice reminds him that his life is a precious gift from God and that there are dire sanctions against murder. Dick Forbush also despairs and for a similar reason: his crisis results from his belief that his destiny is as determined as that of the penguins. Unlike Dick Raleigh, however, Dick Forbush will realize that his awareness of the inevitability of his death means that he is not completely determined. Unlike the penguins, he can choose to live or die. In the following excerpt Forbush realizes his existential freedom very dramatically as he contemplates a skua chick which could grow up to eat the penguins he is trying to save:

"It's too tragic ... hopeless."
What is? What's the answer? There's no answer. But if I do nothing I'm being used. I'm a victim. If I kill this chick there is no answer. If I let it go there is no answer. If the chick is dead nothing will be changed. If the chick lives nothing will be changed....

[Flash of insight]

Life is not an individual thing but a total thing, a volume like the sea. Therefore I am a victim. But if I know I am a victim I am a victim no longer. I am free.
He shouted. The voice broke from his heart. "I am free. I'm free. I am. I am free. I do not understand but I am free."
The Cape was very silent.

Finally I will leave Forbush yelling at the South Pole and turn to Albert Wendt who makes an explicit reference to Camus' essays in his first novel, Sons for the Return Home (1973). Wendt ends his narrative by connecting the Polynesian legend of Maui to Camus' myth of Sisyphus. Like Camus, Wendt's protagonist can imagine the happiness of the individual who struggles towards the heights:
He had nothing to regret; nothing to look forward to. All was well. He was alive; at a new beginning. He was free of his dead.[18]
And this is where I will leave my examination of New Zealand literature because after the 1970s there are fewer references to existentialist ideas. After French existentialism ceased to be fashionable in the English-speaking world, references to it gradually faded from New Zealand literature. One reason could be that eventually there were no more pioneers and settlers to feel deracinated. Their descendants had come to understand what had once been an unpredictable environment. Their tendency to retain conventions which govern fellowship suggests that although some New Zealand writers were interested in existentialism, they seldom completely abandoned the nineteenth-century ethos which informs their literary tradition. Thus in a predominately secular society the struggle to survive in a Godless and indifferent universe may have been absorbed into New Zealand's continuing preoccupation of with the need for fellowship.


[1] E. H. McCormick, New Zealand Literature: A Survey (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), 130.

[2] Max Charlesworth, Jean-Paul Sartre and the Existentialists (London: George Prior Publishers, 1976), 1.

[3] George Chamier, Philosopher Dick: Adventures and Contemplations of a New Zealand Shephard (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1891), 234, 240.

[4] Chamier, Philosopher Dick, 241-242.

[5] William Satchell, The Greenstone Door (1914; rpt., Auckland: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1938), 358.

[6] Albert Camus, Actuelles I, Chroniques 1944-1948 (Paris: Gallimard, 1950), 206; quoted in David Spritzen, Camus: A Critical Examination (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 120.

[7] James K. Baxter, "Back to the Desert", in James K. Baxter as Critic: A Selection from His Literary Criticism by Frank McKay (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1978), 172.

[8] Frank Sargeson, Cet ÚtÚ-lÓ, trans. Jeanne Fournier-Pargoire (Paris: Editions du Bateau Ivre, 1946).

[9] Baxter, "Back to the Desert", 173.

[10] Baxter, "Back to the Desert", 173-174, citing Frank Sargeson, "That Summer", in Celebration: An Anthology of New Zealand Writing from the Penguin New Writing Series, ed. Anthony Stones, with an introduction by John Lehmann (Auckland: Penguin Books, 1984), 67-68.

[11] John Mulgan, Man Alone (London: Selwyn and Blount, 1939; Auckland: Longman Paul, 1972), 141-142.

[12] Guthrie Wilson, Strip Jack Naked (London: Hale, 1957), 122.

[13] D. H. Munro, review of The Huntsman in His Career by Erik de Mauny, in Landfall 4 (December 1950): 357.

[14] Erik de Mauny, The Huntsman in His Career (London: Lindsay Drummond Limited, 185.

[15] De Mauny, The Huntsman in His Career, 259.

[16] Redmond Wallis, Point of Origin (London: The Bodley Head, 1962), 115.

[17] Wallis, Point of Origin, 134.

[18] Albert Wendt, Sons for the Return Home (Auckland: Longman Paul, 1973; Auckland: Penguin Books, 1987) 217.

Works Cited

Billing, Graham. Forbush and the Penguins. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1965.

Camus, Albert. Actuelles I, Choniques 1944-1948. Paris: Gallimard, 1950.

________. The Outsider, Translated by Stuart Gilbert. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1946; reprint, 1957.

Carlyle, Thomas. Sartor Resartus: The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdrockh in Three Books. Centenery Edition, The Works of Thomas Carlyle in Thirty Volumes, Vol. 1. London: Chapman & Hall Limited, 1904.

Chamier, George. Philosopher Dick: Adventures and Contemplations of a New Zealand Shephard. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1891. Charlesworth, Max. The Existentialists and Jean-Paul Sartre. London: George Prior Publishers, 1976.

Davin, Dan. Cliffs of Fall. London: Nicholson & Watson, 1945.

De Mauny, Erik. The Huntsman in His Career. London: Lindsay Drummond Limited, 1949.

Dostoyevsky, Feodor. Crime and Punishment. A Norton Critical Edition (rev.), ed. George Gibian, The Coulson Translation, Background and Sources, Essays in Criticism. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1975.

Duckworth, Marilyn. A Gap in the Spectrum. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1959.

McCormick, E. H. New Zealand Literature: A Survey. London: Oxford University Press, 1959.

McKay, Frank, ed. ,James K. Baxter as Critic: A Selection from His Literary Criticism by Frank McKay. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1978.

Mulgan, John. Man Alone. London: Selwyn & Blount, 1939; reprint, Auckland: Longman Paul, 1972.

Sargeson, Frank. Cet ÚtÚ-lÓ, Translated by Jeanne Fournier-Pargoire. Paris: Editions du Bateau Ivre, 1946.

________. "That Summer", Celebration: An Anthology of New Zealand Writing from The Penguin New Writing Series, ed. Anthony Stones, with an introduction by John Lehrmann. Auckland: Penguin Books, 1984.

Jean-Paul Sartre. The Flies (Les Mouches) and In Camera (Huis Clos, Translated by Stuart Gilbert. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1946.

________. Nausea, Translated by Lloyd Alexander. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1962.

________. Portrait of the Anti-Semite, Translated by Erik de Mauny. London: Secker & Warburg, Lindsay Drummond, 1948.

Satchell, William. The Greenstone Door. 1914; reprint, Auckland: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1938.

Sprintzen, David. Camus: A Critical Examination. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.

Wallis, Redmond. Point of Origin. London: The Bodley Head, 1962.

Wilson, Guthrie. Strip Jack Naked. London: Robert Hale Limited, 1957.

Wendt, Albert. Sons for the Return Home. Auckland: Longman Paul, 1973.