Ern and his poetry are important because they tangibly represent the point when Australia publicly sank its teeth into a discussion of the relationship between poetry and modern life.
In perpetrating the Ern Malley hoax, Stewart and McAuley were announcing their dissatisfaction with both modernism and the sort of poetry advocated by the Jindyworobaks. It is tempting to read the motive behind the hoax (or its retrospective explication) as nothing more than a sort of stick-in-the-mud conservatism. But the response of the two to the modernism advocated by Harris and his Angry Penguins is not so much a knee-jerk reaction as a general disenchantment with a movement which they had carefully studied, and which had promised and then failed to provide a higher meaning to a modern world growing increasingly absorbed with itself.
Modernism and modernity are not synonymous, but neither are they extricable from one another. Modernity is the offspring of the Enlightenment project of the eighteenth century. It is the mainstreaming of a project to observe the world, to comprehensively describe it, to classify it, to render it completely knowable.
Underpinning modernity is materialism, a way of looking at the world in which everything can be explained by the behaviour of matter. Modernity is industrialisation, secularisation, egalitarianism; it is embodied in middle-class suburbia and, eventually, it raises the spectre of socialism and communism.
Modernism is born from modernity, it reacts to modernity, it responds to it, it is in a constant dialogue with modernity, it tries to replace with something new that which it feels modernity has robbed from the world. Modernism responds to the way that modernity has broken down established structures in society and done away with traditional concepts of divine mystery.
Marshall Berman has suggested that those who are the greatest critics of modernity are those who are most in need of what modernism can offer. McAuley and Stewart gave modernism a chance to be their antidote to Australia’s particular version of modernity and it failed them. James McAuley’s reaction to modernism can be seen more clearly when reading his essays in The End of Modernity, published in 1959.
It is hard to say how many of McAuley’s ideas were formed in the period when the hoax was perpetrated; and it is likewise difficult to say to what extent the ‘success’ of the hoax – that is, Max Harris being taken in to the extent of publishing the poems – informed these essays. It’s also dangerous to say with great certainty that the McAuley of 1943 was the same person ideologically as the McAuley of the late 1950s.
What is obvious however is that the hoax and the later body of work are part of the same, continuous project: the critique of modernity and of modernism. Underpinning all of McAuley’s writing on modernism is his conviction that the condition of the arts and the condition of society reflect and are dependent on one another.
Of McAuley’s interest and subsequent dismissal of modernist poetry Michael Heyward has written that, ‘[h]e stared into the same black hole as Baudelaire and Eliot — and then averted his gaze.'[ref]Michael Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair, St Lucia, Queensland, University of Queensland Press, 1993, p.225.[/ref] Ultimately for McAuley, as for Stewart, modernism is a false solution — rather than providing an escape from modernity or a way of transcending the banal, modernism it is merely another one of modernity’s symptoms.
Reading through the essays in The End of Modernity, one is struck by how similar the arguments are to those being propounded a more than a century previously. The themes, although sometimes updated, are consistently the same: anti-secularism, anti-liberalism, anti-egalitarianism.
The essays make for entertaining reading because of the intensity of the author’s vituperation. Of one unfortunate writer, for example, McAuley declares that ‘[h]is work is a cloaca maxima into which has flowed all the ideological drivel of the nineteenth century — deism, pantheism, nationalism, socialism, democratism and the rest — and its value as literature is nil.’
For all his negativity, all his antis, McAuley is a representative of a long tradition of critiquing modernity in that he clings on to, searches for values central to the anti-modern project: a unified society presided over by a mysterious and divine sublime. In McAuley’s case, this sublime was ultramontane Catholicism (in Stewart’s, the religions of Asia) but it is worth noting that when McAuley was writing the Ern Malley poems, he had not yet converted to Catholicism. He was experiencing at the time an intense sort of spiritual crisis to which the poetry of modernism was not providing the relief he sought.