That 'austere anti-aesthetic angel': James K. Baxter and Puritanism
Moffat, K. (2017). That ‘austere anti-aesthetic angel’: James K. Baxter and Puritanism. In P. Whiteford & G. Miles (Eds.), Quarrels with Himself: Essays on James K. Baxter as Prose Writer (pp. 185–211). Wellington: Victoria University Press.
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It is necessary to begin with an apology to James K. Baxter. In my previous musings on the Puritan legacy in New Zealand I have chastised Baxter, along with other writers and critics of his generation, for using Puritanism as a reductive catchphrase to summarise all that they most despise about New Zealand society (Moffat, 'Destruction'). The phrase that I have repeatedly used to epitomise Baxter's perceived antagonism is his description of Pu,itanism as an 'austere anti-aesthetic angel' (Complete Prose 2. 328). Returning to this phrase as I meditate at much greater length on Baxter's relationship with Puritanism, I realise that I am guilty of flattening and simplifying what is a much more complex engagement with Puritanism in his prose writing. Baxter's phrase contains both condemnation and implied praise. He was vehemently opposed to what he regarded as the Puritan suspicion of imagination and sexuality, and throughout his writing castigated all the social and religious forces that sought to curb and quell aestheticism and the natural, instinctual self. Yet, he also refers to Puritanism as 'austere', a quality that much of his writing and his own life choices suggest he regarded as admirable, particularly as it relates to a paring back and relinquishing of the unnecessary paraphernalia of capitalism and materialism. And what to make of 'angel'? Surely this is more than simply alliterative effect. It too undercuts the antagonism of 'anti-aesthetic' to suggest that in Baxter's eyes there is at least a trace of the divine about Puritanism and its legacy.
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