harriet wild on vigil and the piano

07May12

Harriet Wild, ‘Primal Curiosity, Primal Anxiety: The Child Settler in Vigil and The Piano’, New Zealand Media Studies 12, 2 (2012).

From introduction:

Vincent Ward’s Vigil (1984) and Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) can be considered as significant points in the filmic depiction of the settler psyche. These films depict the settler struggling against the land – a desire to tame and cultivate “wildernesses” into a manageable environment. From Alisdair Stewart’s tenuously planted fence-posts in The Piano to Birdie’s archaic derrick in Vigil, the (male) settler is positioned living against the land rather than within it. However, Vigil and The Piano offer another instance of settling in the form of the child-settler, a character negotiating ambivalent feelings encompassing both environmental and familial factors. The child-settler is the settler par excellence; the child who is to grow up in the growing settler colony is symbolic of “potential” in the settler polity, the society to come, emphasised in the parallels between settlement and growing up. Both are characterised by an impossibility of return, as settlement implies the intention to stay and the growing child cannot return to an earlier phase of existence. That these child-settler characters are girls rather than boys displaces another archetypal settler character: that of the Man Alone, erasing any assumed inheritance along paternal lines. Rather than the son acquiring the father’s struggles against the land, the girl functions as a witness to tensions orchestrated within the bounds of the domestic space linked to the mother, and the external landscape connected with the father. Thus, for Toss in Vigil and Flora in The Piano settlement is an anxious process, articulated in their ambivalence towards their environments and compounded by their inclusion in a triangulated familial relationship that results in destabilised space being figured domestically, but also externally. The final “place” of settlement is determined to lie “elsewhere,” a site removed from the setting of the bulk of the narrative.

This article takes the child-settler’s witnessing of the “primal scene” – an occurrence in both narratives – as a locus of anxiety in which the child is triangulated within the parental couple yet simultaneously wholly outside it. Neither narrative places the primal scene as witnessed by infants or very young children; rather, Toss and Flora are older (roughly twelve and nine respectively), and within the ‘latency stage’ of Sigmund Freud’s model of the stages of psychosexual development. For Toss and Flora, their positions as child-settlers are inherently anxious due to the particular emphasis on reality and the denial of phantasy characteristic of the latency stage. This anxiety is augmented by the arrival of a stranger, a thorn that twists the organisation of familial relations and by extension destabilises the settler-family’s grasp on the landscape. Moreover, the very presence of the child-settler rejects the positioning of the mother (and by extension, landscape) as ‘virgin’ soil – a myth that premises settler colonialism as the first “act” of cultivating a foreign landscape. This myth erases indigenous presence and prior inhabitation, which are invisible in Vigil, or relegate the indigenous population to the background as fauna, “authenticating” the exotic wilderness, as in The Piano.



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