The Contemporary Pacific 13.2 (2001) 597-600
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Representing the South Pacific: Colonial Discourse from Cook to Gauguin
Storied Landscapes: Hawaiian Literature and Place
Storied Landscapes: Hawaiian Literature and Place, by Dennis Kawaharada. Honolulu: Kalamaku Press, 1999. ISBN 0962310271; 112 pages. Paper, US$7.95.
The time frame of Rod Edmond's book moves from Enlightenment-era contact in the South Pacific to the First World War and defeat of Germany; the spatial frame is the Polynesian triangle as affected by the colonial cultures of Britain, France, and the United States. In lesser hermeneutic hands, this book could easily have the feel and reach of a "round up the usual suspects" text, but it is much more important than that. Edmond pushes the white mythology of Euroamerican representation to some end point of complexity and subtle self-undermining. At many points (especially in the introduction and epilogue), he acknowledges the limits of working inside this very "colonial discourse" frame as inadequate to represent or approach Native Pacific voices and views of Oceania.
For Edmond, however, there is no place to stand outside white mythology or to claim some interpretive immunity from the tropological sway of "the textuality of history" and staying power of canonical representations (51). Like the very writers he describes, Edmond is working "both within and against the dominant traditions of representing the Pacific" (262); this western negotiation with cultural otherness turns out to be a way of preserving their power of aesthetic and political complexity from charges of mere orientalism or colonial appropriation. He defends Pacific cultures from tropes of elegiac vanishment and orientalist typing. But in effect Edmond preserves western writers in various genres from their own displacement by more indigenous-centered voices and forms, showing that like Stevenson (and the late Pacific phase of Jack London) western writers can create a situated dialogue of European modes and Polynesian stories and forms.
Edmond claims we cannot suddenly or totally disengage prior classifications, mappings, tropes in some act of decolonization by fiat, and I would [End Page 597] agree. Discourse does not work like this; it goes too far down into recesses of subjectivity and into domains and genres of cultural dispersal. Hence we do need to understand the terms and frames of the past in some kind of discriminating and critical-empathetic way that is adequate to the encounters with globalizing powers and their technologies of representation.
If colonial discourse works via anti-conquest disavowals and the sublimation or repression of more overt forms of violence, Edmond admits that epistemic violence remains part of the systemic process of contact, containment, and settlement. Working in a postcolonial context of transformative hybridity and global-local negotiation, however, Edmond's own text is relatively undisturbed by stronger calls for "decolonization" or nativist critiques of militourism then and now. Representation exists in a coherent archive of its own, transmitting the terms and tropes of narrative containment and complex settlement in the Pacific.
With thick-textual detail and chronological care, Edmond treats the death of Captain Cook and grand narratives of imperial encounter as deformed in our postcolonial era; beachcombing and jumping ship to go native in the Bounty episode and Typee; London Missionary Society missionary discourse and reports home of William Ellis and John Williams; Victorian texts of British boyhood inculcating adventure, heroic empire, and trade; Robert Louis Stevenson and his critique of colonialism and use of Polynesian mythologies; Jack London and the contradictory figure of leprosy; French Romanticism in the hands of Pierre Loti and others. An exemplary case is the complicated and tormented Gauguin, whom Edmond finds to be "self-conscious, conflictual and ironic" (20), as colonial discourse is shown to be self-divided, full of internal critique, hesitant about its own power, caught up in the ironies of guilt and exploitation, poetry and empire.