chapter  2
51 Pages

Entitlement

The New Zealand poet Allen Curnow’s ironic ballad ‘House and Land’ (1941) is frequently taken to be an exemplary study of postcolonial white settler anxiety: of the crisis of belonging that accompanies split cultural allegiance, the historical awareness of expropriated territory, and the suppressed knowledge that the legal fiction of entitlement does not necessarily bring with it the emotional attachment that turns ‘house and land’ into home. After all, to assert one’s right to live in a place is not the same thing as to dwell in it or inhabit it; for assertion is possession, not belonging, and dwelling implies an at-homeness with place that the genealogical claim to entitlement may reveal, but just as easily obscure (Bate 2000; Read 2000). In Curnow’s poem, it is the ‘English’ landowner, Miss Wilson, who takes illusory refuge in this particular version of the genealogical imperative: ‘People in the colonies, she said / Can’t quite understand […] / Why, from Waiau to the mountains / It was all father’s land’ (39). Miss Wilson is entitled to her land, but whether she belongs to it is another matter. Her notion of entitlement, deeply colonial in spite of her felt contempt for ‘colonials’, takes the form of an openly expressed patrician privilege, historically if not morally vouchsafed by romanticised appeals to English cultural heritage and the preservation of the colonial past. As the poem implies, entitlement operates as a legislative mechanism for the recognition of affective ties to land and place that are confirmed by historical continuity of association (Griffiths 1997). But affect and experience, vital though these are to a sense of belonging, are rarely enough to guarantee entitlement. Entitlement is much more, or sometimes much less, than the imaginative and/or emotional possession of a place based on a perception of belonging. But then again, it isn’t just about property and the laws that govern ownership either. Rather, entitlement is both of these things and usually

encompasses the tensions between them. Pastoral, we want to argue in this section, is the literary mode in which these tensions are most evidently expressed. There are at least three excellent reasons why the pastoral mode

should be unamenable to postcolonialism. First, as is generally agreed, the pastoral mode has served as a vehicle for sublimated (sometimes more directly articulated) bourgeois ideology (Empson 1935; Patterson 1987; Williams 1973). William Empson, whose 1935 study still remains one of the most incisive on the pastoral, points to the deployment of ‘ironical humility’ in its affectionate representations of supposedly ‘simple’ to much more obviously ‘complex’ people, representations primarily designed to reassure patrician or bourgeois audiences that these ‘simple’ lives contain truths and insights which, being universally applicable, are relevant to themselves (159). Pastoral, suggests Empson among several others, is heavily dependent on the very class system it claims temporarily to suspend; thus, while it generally appeals to fictions of contentment and social harmony through its pleasingly domesticated images of working farm and fruitful garden, it conveniently forgets the division of labour that makes such productivity possible, allowing instead for the charming development of a ‘beautiful relation between rich and poor’ (17). Second, this strategy of avoidance carries over into pastoral’s char-

acteristic coyness in the face of social injustice. Thus, while pastoral can certainly be, and frequently is, an instrument of social critique, it is hardly likely to be a catalyst for the active transformation of established social structures (Alpers 1996). Joseph Meeker, for instance, sees pathos and resignation as features of a mode unable to see beyond the inherent contradictions in its own values, illustrating the dilemma with an extended anecdote:

The sensitive aristocrat who turns toward Arcadia and away from Rome often discovers that Rome is really within him. Though he can leave behind the fearsome environment of civilization and its cities, yet the psyche of civilization remains to guide his responses to nature. He cannot reject civilization without rejecting his own humanness, so he seeks a compromise in the halfway house of a pastoral Arcadia, somewhere midway between the horrors of wilderness and the horrors of the city. His choice of the garden-farm is this exact midpoint, a place of mediation between nature and civilization but also the point where the two worlds make contact and where both continually tug at him. His fear of wilderness is as intense as his fear of cities, and the garden merely intensifies the

contrast without providing a solution. In his total alienation from both worlds, his only response is self-pity and despair at ever resolving the contradictions which he has now discovered to be internal as well as environmental. He cannot achieve tragedy, for he has not risked enough. The end of the pastoral cycle is pathos.