Reading Alone: the landscape and the language of alienation

Described as "NZ's most polished novel," Man Alone holds within it themes of depression, alienation and struggle. This essay examines Man Alone through the lens of the Marxist theory of alienation and continues a discussion on suicide and anti-capitalist politics which has engaged left Kiwi blogs.

“...I find one satisfaction knowing Johnson is still alive. There are some men, this fellow said, you can’t kill.”

And with these lines ends one of Aotearoa’s classic novels, John Mulgan’s saga Man Alone. (Watch Finlay MacDonald's segment on the book on TVNZ's The Good Word (part 3))

Man Alone follows the protagonist Johnson, a British Great War soldier attempting to settle down in the New Zealand of the 1920s and 1930s. Along the way he rubs shoulders with the workers, farmers and wives of the country. The novel is part social realism, part wilderness adventure, shot through with a down and out in the North Island feel, and a dash of desperate rural housewives. Often compared with the work of Ernest Hemmingway, it stood in the post-war years as a canonical text in New Zealand literature, the themes of the novel speaking to a generation of men who had had to confront war and recession and had begun to question the politics and the social order to which they returned. In recent decades the book has waned in popularity, yet with its story of a man searching for his place in the world, riffing on war and peace, capitalism and socialism, loneliness and solidarity, unemployment and work, love and despair it remains an interesting and relevant novel.

What Man Alone captures like no other novel is the experiences of alienation in New Zealand between the world wars. Karl Marx described alienation as the feeling that comes from capitalism separating humanity from their human nature, estranging it from any control, any autonomy and the development of its productive creative and intellectual capacities.

Johnson’s alienation from society expresses itself in different ways at different times. In the boom times of the 1920s as an itinerant farm labourer, in the unemployment camps of the 1930s, and then as a criminal on the run, Johnson is quite literally the man alone. Even in the crowded ‘West River’ unemployment camp, he remains apart, unpopular for not joining the unemployed workers’ movement. He settles down in a small farming community but, “Johnson did not belong easily with these men. They were settled in a way that he was not...He did not belong there and they knew it.”

Marx said that, “The class of the proletariat feels annihilated in estrangement; it sees in it its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence.” Understanding the feelings of alienation workers feel under capitalism is necessary if we want to understand human behaviour and its varied expressions. Reading Man Alone, 71 years after it was first published in 1939, is still an interesting and enjoyable experience. Not only did Mulgan craft a novel that captures, amidst the craggy peaks of the central plateau and the backyard vegetable gardens of rural homes, a snapshot of the despair and the rootlessness of human alienation in New Zealand. Mulgan also created a story of a man gradually becoming self-conscious of his (and others) alienation and eventually involving himself in the struggles of Europeans before the Second World War against capitalism and fascism.

Judy Cox, catalogues, in An Introduction to Marx’s Theory of Alienation, how Marx created a theory of alienation to “reveal the human activity that lies behind the seemingly impersonal forces dominating society.” Marx saw “four specific ways in which alienation pervades capitalist society”. Wage slavery and capitalist social relations separates worker from the products of their labour, removes their control over the labour process and through the labour process even separates us from our human nature. Capitalist work is organised so that even as technology allows much manual work to be done by machines, “it casts some of the workers back into barbarous forms of labour and turns others into machines. It produces intelligence, but it produces idiocy and cretinism for the worker.”

But not just at the point of production does alienation affect the worker. Throughout society capitalist social relations have created a society that breaks downs the bonds of community leaving, “no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”” (Marx).

Looking back on his life in New Zealand Johnson was struck by how his endurance of the harsh life of the depression years, after the unrealised ambitions of marrying and owning his own farm had collapsed changed him, leaving him “moving impersonally and unquestioning through a world of which he had not yet understanding but which he could accept”.

He was not that Johnson who had liked sun and free country and small race meetings, not that man living free, not caring where he worked, what he did. Nor that other man knowing hardship and fear of the future and death by poverty as old friends. Nor that last man hunted, in a life over which he had no control. (Mulgan, p.189.)

Immortalised in Man Alone is the literary equivalent of a Colin McCahon painting. Mulgan writes the New Zealand landscape into a physical symbol of his charachters alienation. “The hills grew more lonely as the afternoon went on, until Johnson came to dislike them”. In Johnson’s experiences Mulgan has also produced fictional representations of two defining moments in his own life. Dance of the Peacocks; New Zealanders in the time of Hitler and Mao Tse-Tung, is James McNeish’s excellent survey of the lives of five New Zealand men, including Mulgan, who all head to England on Rhodes scholarships in the years before the Second World War. These soldier scholars between them saw five wars, three revolutions and unimaginable horrors. For Mulgan the first pivotal moment of his life was his experience during the 1932 demonstrations and riots of unemployed workers in Auckland against wage cuts and the slave labour camps. After the first riot Mulgan, then a student at Auckland University, signed up to be special constable, volunteers enlisted by a Government worried by the spectre of riots and looting by angry unemployed men. Yet on his first night he was confronted by an ex-British Army offiver who had come to New Zealand to farm, but “had been driven of the land, he said; his family faced starvation. Mulgan listened to what he said, went home and threw away his baton. Within days he was producing underground pamphlets on behalf of the unemployed” (McNeish, p.44). It was the beginning of Mulgan’s conversion into a socialist, “I’d like socialism by evolution...It’s fundamentally much more decent that this other murderous and selfish repression” (McNeish, p.104).

In Man Alone the demonstration marks a sea change for Johnson and where we first sense a break from the alienation and monotony of his life,

“In the grimness and tenseness of that mass of men a new spirit came over them. It was a very silent procession that marched, without bands or songs or shouting. Johnson going with them felt this change. He lost the sense of waste and frustration that had been with him. Instead he felt that he had a part in something. What it was he could not have said, but only that he was with men who shared his lack of fortune, who were the same as he was and had the same purpose; that they were going forward together, where, he could not say, but only that they were going somewhere and would be together.” (Mulgan, pp.53-53.)

The second and other defining moment for Mulgan and for his protagonist Johnson, is their decision to involve themselves in the armed struggle against fascism and for socialism in Europe. At the end of Man Alone, Johnson and a group of British anti-fascists and socialists are climbing a mountain path into Spain, on their way to join the International Brigades formed to defend the Spanish republic from General Franco’s fascism. “The sun came out for a moment as they were coming down the mountain-side into Spain”. For Johnson this marks his escape from the alienation of capitalism, “’I’ve only felt like this sometimes,’ he said, ‘going somewhere with people I liked, doing something together. It’s a fine feeling, Most of the time a man spends too much alone.’” With this Mulgan ended his novel, with Johnson heading into the uncertain but liberating life of an anti-fascist.

Published in 1939 Man Alone was not coloured by Mulgan’s own experience of war as a commando in Nazi occupied Greece, working with Communist partisans to harass the occupation forces and disrupt their supply lines. The work was dangerous and the murderous reprisals by Nazis on the Greek villagers after every raid left Mulgan traumatised by the end of the war. Yet worse was to come. As Dean Parker harrowingly described,

Mulgan took his own life in 1945, just as one war was ending and another seemed to be starting. He had returned from liberated Greece where a new army of occupation, the British, with their collaborationist Greek National Guard, had interned 15,000 pro-communist prisoners, and Greek Communist partisans had taken mass hostages in reprisal. War seemed endless, a swapping of sides. Everywhere he looked he saw betrayal. In a hotel room in Cairo, exhausted, depressed, he opted out.

Suicide. A recurring tragedy in New Zealand literature and the final escape for those for whom alienation becomes too much to bear. In Scott Hamilton’s recent blogpost and poem The Suicide Set List, Hamilton explores alienation, depression and suicide in the neoliberal suburbs of 1990s Auckland, where the working class lost the class war and young men struggled to find meaning in their life.

Marxist academic and activist Dave Beddgood, lost his son Bruno to suicide and in his essay Talking about Suicide, examines current suicide prevention strategies and argues for an anti-capitalist approach to youth suicide.

...while it is necessary to support all methods that prove to be effective in identifying those at risk of suicide and helping them to prevent their suicide, which includes proven drug therapy, counseling, etc., the most effective prevention of suicide is to empower young people to understand and act collectively to eliminate the most important causes that are pushing them towards suicide. This means in the first place demanding the right to work and a living income as a means of survival, and in the second place understanding alienation as the root cause of alienation in creating powerless individuals. The way out of this trap is then to act collectively to progressively challenge the power relations and the underlying social relations of capitalism themselves. For young people the main institutions that reproduce them as powerless workers are the family, education and the workplace itself. In each of these institutions young people must organise collectively around a program for youth empowerment.

A hotel room in Cairo, an isolated farm near Ruapehu or a messy bedroom in Papakura. Alienation takes its bloody tithe of humanity. No doubt as wages stagnate, benefits are cut and unemployment remains high as a new round of neo-liberal reforms are enacted by the National Party, suicide will spike again. Today’s more ambitious New Zealand will mostly want to forget or mystify the reasons behind these deaths. Yet for every suicide victim, there will be many more Johnsons, men and women too hard to kill and dawning to the reality that capitalism must be confronted and destroyed. As Cox concludes after commenting on the new individualism of consumerist suburbia,

The eradication of alienation depends on the transformation of society as a whole. However we organise our personal lives and leisure time, we cannot individually fulfil our collective ability to shape the natural world we live in. Lifestyles and leisure activities cannot liberate us from alienation, or even create little islands of freedom in an ocean of alienation. As alienation is rooted in capitalist society, only the collective struggle against that society carries the potential to eradicate alienation, to bring our vast, developing powers under our conscious control and reinstitute work as the central aspect of life.


Dave Brown said…
More on Mulgan and alienation
- said…
Interesting review Dave. I'm not convinced however by your portrayal of Mulgan as a one dimensional English humanist/liberal.

Mulgan describes himself as a sort of fabian socialist, and certainly I think that fits the evidence.

You write Mulgan off for not seeing past his immediate situation when his life story shows that Mulgan was ultra-sensitive to whatever situation he found himself in. Just look at the impact the 32 riot had on him.

While it is nice to imagine Mulgan in an alternative reality leading the Greek resistance against the Stalinists and British the reality is that is disorientation was a generalised feeling in Greece.

"The resistance's own leaders, directionless without guidance from Moscow, timid to the point of suicide, left their fighters to face the guns of the British, whilst they tried to come to a compromise with the status quo."
Dave Brown said…
I don't think you read my review very well Omar. I say that Mulgan was in despair of both Stalinism and English liberalism. But he was trapped by his inability to escape English liberalism in the generic sense which includes Fabian Socialism which the programatic base of the British Labour Party!
Therefore I argue that Mulgan could not see past his present situation as a sort of intellectual impasse, because he was extremely bright and sensitive to human suffering.
And I say nothing about Mulgan leading some Greek resistance movement, but trapped in the hopeless situation of treachery on all sides where he experienced the suffering first hand and had to deal with it personally.
Libcom was not around to offer him a way out so he chose morphine.

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