The Immortal Malley and the End of Modernity

By | 1 December 2010

One of the debates of modernity is concerned with the role that art plays, or should play, in society. Modernism is not nearly so cohesive and homogenous a movement as to have a unified answer to this question, but one enduring idea that threads its way through the history of modernism is art for art’s sake or, in the French, l’art pour l’art.

The concept of art for art’s sake is commonly attributed to Théophile Gautier who, in the preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin, his novel of 1835, rails against utilitarianism in the arts. Art should not serve any purpose, Gautier argues, it should not be useful. In a world that has all but rejected God, art is the replacement sublime, it shouldn’t signify anything, it should just evoke the indescribable in the emotions of its viewers or readers.

McAuley, in ‘The Grinning Mirror’ agrees to an extent. Gautier famously juxtaposed usefulness and art with the analogy of the most useful part of the house being the toilet; a century later McAuley compared the relationship between poetry and the atmosphere of modernity to that of a dog and a gas chamber. ‘There is no genuine poetry which expressed the mentality of Locke, Hume, Bentham, Comte, Marx, Mill, Spencer, to name a representative few,’ writes McAuley, juxtaposing poetry with the major thinkers of the Enlightenment.

Up to this point, McAuley and Gautier are in agreement: the mentality of the Enlightenment is not fertile ground for art. They don’t even entirely disagree on the idea that what needs to happen is a search for the sublime. Where they diverge, however, is in the purpose of art and its relationship to the sublime.

The doctrine of art for art’s sake argues that art is not a hermeneutic tool used in the service of communicating sacredness between a divine power and its earthly subjects, art to many modernists was sacred in its own right. McAuley has different ideas about the relationship of art to the sacred.

The only legitimate art, in his view, is that which serves a religious purpose, be it liturgical art for the purpose of ritual, sacred art for interpreting things from a religious viewpoint, or secular art which still makes reference to higher things. Art for art’s sake, or the absence of any higher, unifying principle, claims McAuley, is responsible for a breakdown of the unity of society, for the degradation of traditional culture.

This incoherence, he alleges, reaches its apotheosis in ‘totalitarian pseudo-religions.’ Ern Malley’s preface to The Darkening Ecliptic, in which he presents an exegesis for the poetry to follow, is cheeky satire on McAuley and Stewart’s part, demonstrating how the view the very methodology and raison d’être of modernism as inherently incoherent.

‘When thought,’ they have Malley opine, ‘at a certain level, and with a certain intention, discovers itself to be poetry it discovers also that duty does after all exist: the duty of a public act. That duty is wholly performed by setting the pen to paper.’

One of the critiques that modernity has been subjected to is that it has created a society in which the individual is paramount and in which traditional, unifying values of communities have been discarded.

A parallel criticism can be made of modernist art and literature in the sense that it is a departure from established traditions and ‘universality’ towards the production of a kind of art that is not inspired from above by some divine and universal spiritual entity, but rather from the specificity of the individual, and the unconscious.

Surrealism, as is made clear in McAuley and Stewart’s statement to the press after the Malley poems were published, was one such manifestation of tradition’s new-found subservience to the individual psyche. Poetry, argues McAuley in ‘The Perennial Poetry’, should be governed by a pre-existing idea or central principle. It should have a plan before it has even been begun.

‘It is something more than an experimental dredging of the subconscious in the hope of finds,’ writes McAuley. ‘A tendency has arisen in our day to consider the poetic process as a sub-intellectual planless consultation of the obscurer regions of the psyche.’

This tendency, he argues, is not specific to poets but to a general way of thinking that has pervaded modern life: to distrust the concept of a higher, supernatural power. When the mind loses allegiance to faith, three characteristics of modernity which ‘stultify intelligence’ manifest themselves: humanism, arbitrariness and individualism. They ‘breed ideologies like dreams and nightmares.’

Modernism’s emphasis on individuality springs from the acknowledgement of the fragmentation of coherent society into isolated individuals. Modernism sees this fragmentation as offering a choice: either one can be mediocre or be original.

Modern man is offered such a bewildering array of options in his choice of how to live that, often he recoils into mediocrity because, as Nietzsche notes, to become mediocre ‘is the only morality that makes sense.’ Mediocrity, again, is not the victim solely of the modernists’ vitriol.

One of the most brilliant conceits of the Ern Malley hoax is the ridiculing of a certain kind of middle-class mediocrity through the creation of Ethel Malley, that archetype of bourgeois suburban philistine, who discovers the poetry of her dead brother and feels a duty to have it assessed by an expert.

The portrayal of strait-laced, dutiful Ethel is too believable to be described as a caricature; in her letters she lingers over the banal and trivial (the fussy details of Ern’s illness) and disingenuously self-deprecates to excuse herself from the world of culture. ‘I’m not literary person myself’, she sniffs.

Modernism and critics of modernity, as represented by McAuley, agree that modernity, individualism and egalitarianism have created a bourgeois mediocrity. They agree that to be mediocre is not good, but they don’t have a common vision of a path that avoids mediocrity.

Ultimately, McAuley agrees with Max Harris’ crusade against the parochial, nationalist poetry that relies on trite Australianisms. He invokes his partner in crime, Harold Stewart, as an example of good Australian poetry which does not rely on either Australian imagery or unnecessary experimentation. ‘His finely wrought, highly philosophical and sensuously splendid verse contains no wallabies, no semi-collapsed metric, no suburbanised renderings of the bush philosophy of mateship, none of those sentimental off-scourings of nineteenth-century ideologies which pass in Australia for deep thoughts.

‘This all takes place in 1946. Imagine – twenty-four years after ‘The Waste Land’,’ exclaims Carey’s character in My Life as a Fake, as he explains the effect that the Bob McCorkle hoax had on the Australian literary scene.

Subtract a few years from those figures and Carey has provided a neat summing up of the extraordinary nature of the Ern Malley phenomenon.

The turbulence caused by two critics of modernity is all the more extraordinary because it happened so long after the rest of the western world. Nevertheless, the debate surrounding the modernism’s legitimacy is part of a larger debate on how to deal with the effects of modernity, which is in turn a discussion which stretches back to at least the French Revolution.

It is more than a dichotomy of old and new, or of progress and conservatism. It is a search for a sublime which gives back to a fragmented world a sense of intangible beauty and mystery.

It has been suggested that critics of modernity tend to be émigrés, either literally or metaphorically alienated by the modernity of their own homeland.[ref]See Antoine Compagnon, Les Antimodernes: de Joseph de Maistre à Roland Barthes; Paris, Gallimard, 2005.[/ref] Certainly this idea can be applied to both James McAuley and Harold Stewart.

It is because of the relevance of the modernity discussion to an Australia searching for her place in the world that Ern Malley could outlive his conception as a clever joke, metaphorically come to life and enjoy immortality through his subsequent canonisation in Australian literary mythology.

Further reading:

Ackland, Michael, Damaged Men: The Precarious lives of James McAuley and Harold Stewart, Crows Nest, NSW, Allen & Unwin, 2001.

Dutton, Geoffrey, Snow on the Saltbush: The Australian Literary Experience, Ringwood, Victoria, Viking, 1984.

Pybus, Cassandra, The Devil and James McAuley, St Lucia, Queensland, University of Queensland Press, 1999.

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