Text and Paratext: Ern Malley and the Function of the Author

1 December 2010


Image courtesy of Australian Book Review

‘No-Man’s-language appropriate / Only to No-Man’s-Land’

The immediate target of the Malley hoax was Max Harris and those associated with Angry Penguins, but James McAuley and Harold Stewart also had ‘bigger fish’, as it were, in mind. Herbert Read in particular, the English poet and critic – whose writings were a significant influence on Max Harris’s own poetry and aesthetics – was very much in the hoaxers’ sights. According to McAuley:

It was the egregious Herbert that we set as our mark, hoping to keep the thing going long enough to reach him, and knowing he would be a dead sucker for any gross rubbish that came his way. He is, at least in the publicity sense ‘bigger’ than the locals, and would give the thing less of an air of taking lollies from children.1

For the hoaxers, Harris and other Angry Penguins writers represented a derivative Australian example of modernist techniques – championed by Read amongst others – that had already swept England and America. Modernist poetry, for McAuley and Stewart, was a ‘collection of garish images without coherent meaning and structure; as if one erected a coat of bright paint and called it a house.’2 Accordingly, the Ern Malley poems are a distorted reflection of such imagery; texts constructed out of misquotation, false allusions, nonsensical sentences and awkward rhyme. The ‘rules of composition’, as McAuley and Stewart explained once the hoax was made public, were fairly simple: ‘(1) There must be no coherent theme, at most, only confused and inconsistent hints at a meaning held out as bait to the reader; (2) No care was taken with verse technique, except occasionally to accentuate its general sloppiness by deliberate crudities; (3) In style, the poems were to imitate, not Mr. Harris in particular, but the whole literary fashion as we knew it from the works of Dylan Thomas, Henry Treece and others.’3

The sixteen poems that comprise The Darkening Ecliptic were all written – according to McAuley and Stewart – within the time frame of an afternoon and evening, McAuley called ‘a hard day’s work.’[ref]Graeme Kinross-Smith, Australia’s Writers, Nelson, Melbourne, 1980, p. 319.[/ref] Michael Heyward, putting this time frame in context, has noted: ‘assuming they produced [Malley’s] oeuvre over a period of eight or ten hours, discarding drafts and false starts along the way, that sets their output at a poem every half an hour, a rate slightly less than a line a minute, no mean feat.’4 Many commentators have expressed doubts that the poems could have been written so quickly; Sidney Nolan – who was closely associated with Angry Penguins at the time of the hoax and designed the front cover of the edition devoted to Malley – suggested facetiously that ‘it would have taken Shakespeare [at least] a weekend.’5 The speed of composition, as Heyward has noted, is in many respects unimportant, in that it in no way guarantees ‘either inferior work or the outpourings of genius … it simply makes the poets’ disclaimers of merit more powerful.’6 For McAuley and Stewart, it was important to maintain that texts such as Malley’s could easily be produced, and importantly, produced with little intellectual input.

To create the poems the hoaxers improvised with free association and conscious interruption, not dissimilar to surrealist techniques of poetic production. To build their collages they used whatever books were on their desks; the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a Collected Shakespeare, a Dictionary of Quotations, Ripman’s Pocket Dictionary of English Rhymes. The poems misquote and parody, among other things; Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Keats, the musical Oklahoma, Mallarmé, Dürer and Ezra Pound. It is little wonder, on the basis of this, that Harris was intoxicated by the imagery of the poems.7

One problem the hoaxers faced in this task was to create poems that would be convincing enough to deceive Harris. Consequently, the first poem Harris received was ‘Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495’, actually a ‘serious’ poem composed by McAuley prior to the hoax, one that he described as a ‘come on’:

But no one warned that the mind repeats
In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still
The black swan of trespass on alien waters (DE, 243)8

McAuley argued that despite the lovely imagery the poem was still nonsense: ‘What the poem claims is that the poet had often had a pre-vision of Innsbruck before seeing Dürer’s picture: not a very credible assertion … We need a revival of the eighteenth century reading habit of noticing what the poem says and asking whether this is sensible.’9

McAuley’s insistence that the poem possess some inner logic that is ‘credible’ and ‘sensible’ is crucial, for we see here not only a clash of artistic aesthetics, but also a tension over the production and value of ‘meaning’ within literary works. Or, to put it another way, the hoax becomes a testing ground for conflicting notions of textual reception. McAuley was calling for a revival of literary interpretation that foregrounded the author as the arbiter of unified meaning within the poem, a figure always prior to the text and informing it with significance. Such a position has been rendered problematic, however, by post-structuralist literary theory, where it is not the author that is imbued with the power to generate meaning, but rather the reader. In a complete rejection of McAuley’s stance, Roland Barthes (1977) argues that the author’s intention is fundamentally irrelevant as far as the unity of meaning within a text is concerned.

But before turning to Barthes it is worth noting that at the time of the hoax – when Harris was being publicly humiliated for believing the Malley poems were the work of a major, if previously undiscovered, poet – there were many respected commentators endorsing Harris’s assessment of the poems. The Age critic, Colin Badger, noted that ‘whatever the deficiencies of Mr. Max Harris as critic and poet, it is very difficult indeed to find that he erred in his estimate of these poems … with whatever doubts and hesitancies, honest criticism will endorse Mr. Harris’ judgement.’10 Brian Elliot, the Australian academic, wrote – despite certain reservations – that the Malley poems were ‘really quite remarkable as literary craftsmanship … There is something most unique about the whole thing.’11 But perhaps the strongest support for Harris came from Herbert Read, who hadn’t been embroiled in the hoax as McAuley and Stewart had hoped. Writing to Harris, Read argued that the poems were ‘undoubtedly poetic, and poetic on an unusual level of achievement’; indeed, Read argued that McAuley and Stewart had deceived themselves in creating the hoax:

It comes to this: if a man of sensibility, in a mood of despair or hatred, or even from a perverted sense of humour, sets out to fake works of imagination, then if he is to be convincing, he must use the poetic faculties. If he uses the faculties to good effect, he ends up by deceiving himself. He calls himself ‘the black swan of trespass on alien waters’ and that is a fine poetic phrase. So is ‘hawk at the wraith of remembered emotions’ and many other tropes and images in these poems.12

Read’s approach to the poems seems to be heralding the work of Barthes. For Barthes our concept of the author is a modern construction, a social product emerging out of discourses that promoted the primacy of the individual. It is therefore logical, according to Barthes, ‘that in literature it should be this positivism, the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the “person” of the author.’13 Such a concept is nowhere more evident than in the modern literary festival, where the cult of celebrity foregrounds the author before the text. As Barthes notes ‘the image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centred on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions.’14 It was this social emphasis upon ‘the author’ that ultimately condemned Max Harris in the public response to the Malley hoax. If the ‘author’ of the work was a hoax, how could the poems have any merit whatsoever?

Barthes’s response would be that the author is not the issue: it is the text itself that needs to be considered. In this sense, McAuley and Stewart’s intentions in producing the hoax poems becomes an irrelevancy to the poems. That the poem ‘Culture as Exhibit’ contains a direct quotation from an American manual on mosquito control – intended as a complete absurdity by the poets – is a case in point:

‘Swamps, marshes, borrow-pits and other
Areas of stagnant water serve
As breeding-grounds …’ Now
Have I found you, my Anopheles! (DE, 255)

The Australian poet Elisabeth Lambert, who was the Angry Penguins representative in Sydney, made the point that regardless of its source the quotation had ‘a fine flavour’:

Someone should try and locate the man who wrote the opening lines of that American drainage report. It might be accidental, but on the other hand the poor ellow might be a suppressed poet … The whole quotation has a fine flavour. And borrow-pits. What a beautiful word. I’m doubtful just what a borrow-pit is, but it makes a lovely noise. In any case what made Stewart-McAuley think a mosquito unpoetic?15

For Barthes literary language is a language ‘without bottom’, something like a ‘pure ambiguity’ supported by an ‘empty meaning’:

There are no beginnings and no ends, no sequences which cannot be reversed, no hierarchy of textual ‘levels’ to tell you what is more or less significant. All literary texts are woven out of other literary texts, not in the conventional sense that they bear the traces of ‘influence’ but in the more radical sense that every word, phrase or segment is a reworking of other writings which precede or surround the individual work.16

Barthes’s position here is almost an echo of the hoaxers’ methods, except that for Barthes it is a position of affirmation.

Barthes’s approach to language and writing resemble that of French theorist Jacques Derrida. Derrida argues that the signs composing a text can be ‘deconstructed’, undermining the systems of logic by which we traditionally approach a text. For Derrida ‘there is something in writing itself which finally evades all systems and logics’, a constant defusing of meaning that the text cannot contain. 17 Like Barthes’s idea of literary language as ‘pure ambiguity’, Derrida’s concepts undermine traditional theories of meaning. This deconstruction of meaning is ‘a challenge to the very idea of structure: for a structure always presumes a centre, a fixed principle, a hierarchy of meanings and a solid foundation, and it is just these notions which the endless differing and deferring of writing throws into question.’18 It is interesting to note that both McAuley and Stewart were advocating not just a traditional unity in poetry but something more fundamental; their emphasis upon coherent meaning in poetry mirrored their desire for metaphysical unity. In the years after the hoax both poets sought the certainties provided by religion, or spirituality. For McAuley, this involved a conversion to Catholicism, and for Stewart a lifelong immersion in Taoism.

For Barthes, as for Derrida, such a position is untenable. It is a yearning for a sign [God] that acts as a transcendental signifier, an anchoring, unquestionable meaning to which all our signs are ultimately pointing; the transcendental signifier. For Barthes our concept of the author can be viewed in the same manner: ‘We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.’19 In this multi-dimensional space it is the reader, not the author, who interprets meaning. Indeed for Barthes a text is made of ‘multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not as was hitherto said, the author.’20 It is at this point that we come to what Barthes has described as the death of the Author: the reader, the only one who can interpret or write meaning into the text, is only born out of the Author’s death. At this point whether McAuley, Stewart or Ern Malley wrote the poems becomes of no importance; the identity of the author is an empty presence in relation to the text.

  1. James McAuley, letter to Brian Elliot, 27 November 1944, quoted in Michael Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair, Vintage, 2003, p. 157. Heyward’s book is the largest study to date on Malley, and this essay is heavily indebted to his research on the subject.
  2. McAuley and Harold Stewart, in Heyward, 2003, p. 172.
  3. James McAuley and Harold Stewart, quoted in Heyward, 2003, p. 173.
  4. Heyward, 2003, p. 124.
  5. Sidney Nolan, quoted in Heyward, 2003, p. 124. Nolan had been greatly impressed with the Malley poems, afterwards using them as inspiration for his painting. In 1973 Nolan began working on a series of paintings and calligraphic drawings that attempted to disprove the hoaxers’ assertion that the poems were nonsensical; he wanted to show that Malley ‘did make sense by doing a drawing of each four lines to try to prove to McAuley and Stewart that the thing did have a logic and a meaning like other forms of poetry, and it wasn’t nonsense.’ (Nolan, in Heyward, 2003, p. 219).
  6. Heyward, 2003, p. 124.
  7. In an interesting reading of Malley’s poem ‘Young Prince of Tyre’, Philip Mead has analysed the poem’s allusions to, and appropriations from, Shakespeare’s Pericles. Ironically, as Mead points out, Pericles – like Malley’s texts – is a collaborative work by co-authors Shakespeare and George Wilkins. Contemporary Shakespearean scholarship attributes at least nine scenes of Pericles to Wilkins, and possibly around thirteen to Shakespeare; as Mead notes there is something uncanny about this, for if the hoaxers ‘did open up their Collected Works at random, then they did so at one of the most dubiously authentic points in the whole Shakespearean canon’. Interestingly, there is a strange resemblance to the techniques used to produce Malley’s poems, and the realities of textual production in Shakespeare’s day: ‘(i)nstead of a single author, we have a network of collaborative relations, normally between two or more writers, between writers and acting companies, between acting companies and printers, between compositors and proofreaders, between printers and censors’. (Philip Mead, Networked Language, 2008, pp. 156-164).
  8. Ern Malley, The Darkening Ecliptic, 1943, reproduced in Heyward, 2003, p. 243. From here on the page citation will accompany the body text.
  9. McAuley in Heyward, 2003, p. 92.
  10. Colin Badger, ‘The Strange Case of Ern Malley’, Age, 4 November 1944, in Heyward, 2003, p. 198.
  11. Brian Elliot, in a letter to Clem Christesen, 1994, in Heyward, 2003, p. 170.
  12. Herbert Read, in a letter to Max Harris, in Heyward, 2003, p. 196.
  13. Roland Barthes, Image, Text, Music, Fontana Press, London 1977, p. 87.
  14. Barthes, 1977, p. 87.
  15. Elisabeth Lambert, in a letter to John Reed, in Heyward, 2003, p. 120.
  16. Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: an Introduction, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1983, p. 138.
  17. Eagleton, 1983, p. 134.
  18. Eagleton, 1983, p. 134.
  19. Barthes, 1977, p. 146.
  20. Barthes, 1977, p. 148.
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