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

By | 1 December 2010

While being a ‘mixture of assertion, paradox, insight, truism and brilliant bullshit’, as Heyward has colourfully noted, the ‘Preface’ – at least for Max Harris – ‘drew a magic circle around The Darkening Ecliptic, and made the poems seem even greater than the sum of their parts.’1 Indeed, the assertion in the ‘Preface’ that ‘there is, at this moment, no such thing as a simple poem if what is meant by that is a point-to-point straight line relation of images’ seems almost to foreshadow the literary theory of Barthes and Derrida as discussed in the first section. Additionally, the ‘Preface and Statement’ continues the game of dropping clues to the hoax, as McAuley and Stewart had so obviously done in the poems; when Malley states ‘There is no biographical information’, or ‘What might not X have done if he had lived’, the hoaxers are surely hinting at Malley’s spuriousness. Brian Elliot, in a letter to Clem Christesen, founder of Australian literary magazine Meanjin, noted:

What seems plain as a pikestaff to me is the fact the [Malley] stuff has been carefully (I should say diabolically) designed to fit in with Max’s idiom of ideas – images, symbolistic method, literary references etc. In view of the erudite nature of the material and also the laconic shamelessness of the pretence (there are several very clear nods and winks which anybody but blind Max shd. have seen), I took it that the whole thing was a bare-faced hoax of some kind … 2

Harris was blind to the ‘nods and winks’ because he had already convinced himself that Malley was, as he informed Ethel, ‘one of the most remarkable and important poetic figures of this country … Ern was, in my opinion a great man, and in the opinion of many people a major poet.’3

Ethel’s letters and Malley’s ‘Preface and Statement’ form what the critic Gérard Genette has labelled ‘paratexts’; that is, textual materials that are associated with what we might describe as the ‘primary text’ – in this case, The Darkening Ecliptic – and providing certain supporting functions to that text. In Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (1997) Genette provides a comprehensive analysis of paratextual materials and their relationship to literary texts. For Genette, a literary work consists:

entirely or essentially, of a text, defined (very minimally) as a more or less long sequence of verbal statements that are more or less endowed with significance. But this text is rarely presented in an unadorned state, unreinforced and unaccompanied by a certain number of verbal or other productions, such as an author’s name, a title, a preface, illustrations. And although we do not always know whether these productions are to be regarded as belonging to the text, in any case they surround it and extend it, precisely in order to present it, in the usual sense of this verb but also in the strongest sense: to make present, to ensure the text’s presence in the world, its ‘reception’ and consumption … These accompanying productions, which vary in extent and appearance, constitute what I have called elsewhere the work’s paratext4

The paratext – whether it be the name of the author, the title of the text, the publisher’s name, a preface, or even paratextual elements distanced from the text itself (such as media interviews, conversations, letters and diaries) – functions to colour our reading of the text in one way or another. Depending upon the particular reader, the publisher’s name may add a certain prestige to the text; the title of the work may – as could be argued in the case of James Joyce’s Ulysses – provide a ‘guide’ to reading the text; and a preface, almost always, intimates authorial intent in one form or another, even when written by someone other than the author.

  1. Heyward, 2003, pp. 65-66.
  2. Elliot, letter to Clem Christensen, in Heyward, 2003, p. 169.
  3. Harris, letter to Ethel Malley, in Heyward, 2003, p. 91.
  4. Gérard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997, p. 1.
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