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

By | 1 December 2010

Essentially, a text is surrounded by multiple paratexts that validate its ‘being’ and mediate its reception. Importantly, as Genette notes, the function of paratexts can alter depending upon their temporal situation. A preface, for instance, may be altered in a new edition of a text; indeed, over time a text’s title may undergo revision. Important though for this discussion of Malley is Genette’s insistence on what he terms ‘factual’ paratexts:

By factual I mean the paratext that consists not of an explicit message (verbal or other) but of a fact whose existence alone, if known to the public, provides some commentary on the text and influences how the text is received. Two examples are the age or sex of the author … Another example is the date of the work … it is indisputable that historical awareness of the period in which a work was written is rarely immaterial to one’s reading of that work.1

Obviously, the ‘fact’ that Malley was a hoax significantly changes contemporary readers’ expectations of The Darkening Ecliptic, in a way that would have been impossible for Harris until the hoax had been made public. Harris was reading the poems as the product of – for him at least – an author of ‘genius’, and the paratexts at that time functioned to strengthen his conviction. Rather than prioritising the text and the reader as a Barthian analysis would do, the paratextual material ensured that the author’s presence, despite its spuriousness, was central to the hoax.

This emphasis upon the figure of the author accords with Michel Foucault’s position on authorial identity. While Barthes might dismiss this author-figure as an expression of capitalist ideology and an empty presence, the work of Foucault argues that the author actually has a crucial role to play in defining, limiting, and classifying a text. In the case of Malley, the ‘function of the author’, as Foucault would put it, was very much at work as Max Harris fell under the spell of the Malley poems, and perhaps just as importantly, of Malley’s life. In ‘What is an Author’, Foucault provides what, in many respects, can be read as a response to Barthes’s concept of the ‘death of the author’. While Foucault acknowledges the importance of Barthes’s theory, his own position on authorial identity diverges from Barthes’s in its insistence that the author continues to play an essential role in relation to the text. For Foucault, the ‘author serves to characterize a certain mode of being of discourse: the fact that the discourse has an author’s name, that one can say ‘this was written by ‘so-and-so’ or ‘so-and-so is its author,’ shows that this discourse is not everyday speech … On the contrary, it is a speech that must be received in a certain mode and that, in a given culture, must receive a certain status.’2

The status conveyed in the case of Malley is the status of ‘the poet’ and of ‘poetry’. As readers, Foucault would argue, these terms colour our reception of the text, allow us to classify the work within a discourse that is already shaping it, setting parameters on what he terms the ‘cancerous and dangerous proliferation of signification.’3 The Malley paratext, rather than simply providing biographical information on the author’s life and an ars poetica, further entrenched the poems themselves within the broader discourse of poetry itself. Pierre Bourdieu, in his book The Field of Cultural Production (1993) has argued, like Foucault, that the ‘poet’ is a figure imbued with a certain cultural capital, one that occupies a position providing symbolic value to texts that other writers are not necessarily granted. In the case of Malley, McAuley and Stewart invented a persona so steeped in the mythology of the poet that Harris fell blindly in love with their invention; the symbolic power of this non-existent poet was very strong indeed. In his introduction to the Malley issue of Angry Penguins Harris’s intoxication with the idea of Malley is obvious:

[Malley] deliberately invoked death upon himself to provide the deepening and consummating forces of poetic experience. For the sake of the unity of death and poetry, Malley sacrificed his relationships with the woman he loved, left her, and returned to Sydney … he treated death greatly, and as poetry … dying at the age of 25 with Grave’s Disease.4

As the passage above indicates Harris’s reading of The Darkening Ecliptic was deeply coloured by his imagining of Malley. Indeed, it is apparent that Harris was using Malley’s bogus life story to ‘interpret’ the poems. In his reading of ‘Petit Testament’ – where Malley writes ‘I said to my love (who is living)/Dear we shall never be that verb/Perched on the sole Arabian Tree’ – Harris claims that: ‘The Arabian Tree is [Malley’s] poetic fulfillment, and its tears are, without doubt, real … Yet in the epic suffering of his going away like the elephant to die, he does feel himself to triumph …’5. Undoubtedly, Harris’s intoxication with Malley was slipping into hyperbole.

In this sense the role of the author is far more significant than Barthes’s interpretation suggests. Even though Malley never existed he was, paradoxically perhaps, the poet that Harris himself wished to be, the tortured modernist willing to sacrifice everything for his art. In a letter to John Reed, Harris wrote: ‘Malley is of such terrible significance to me because I think he saw the problem as I saw it, and fought out his slow hypnotic wrestling match with the angel of death over 5 years’6. For Harris, Malley came wrapped in a mythology, a discourse that had already enveloped Harris and to some extent whether the author is ‘real’ or a fiction becomes somewhat irrelevant: for Harris the idea of Malley was effectively enough.

What becomes obvious is that it was the spurious figure of Malley, as much as his poetry that captured the imagination of those associated with Angry Penguins. Harris, Nolan, Reed and others all wished to believe in this ‘exciting personality’. Instead of the ‘author’s death’, what we observe here, courtesy of the paratexts associated with The Darkening Ecliptic, is the ‘author’ functioning as a centrally important figure in the text’s reception. In terms of authorial identity the paratextual material cemented, or confirmed, what Harris already wished to believe: that he’d discovered a poet of genius, a poet who could further his own modernist cause.

It becomes evident that the Malley hoax provides a dichotomous model of authorial function and identity. On the one hand, the actual author(s) – McAuley and Stewart – can be viewed as largely irrelevant as far as their intention and the reception of the text are concerned; on the other, we see the dubious figure of Malley casting a large shadow over the poems, ensuring that the ‘author’ retains a robust and vital presence that surrounds and validates the text.

With this in mind it is worth recognising that Malley and his poetry now plays a paratextual role in relation to more recent works. From the Malley-inspired paintings of Garry Shead, with such evocative titles as The Apotheosis of Ern Malley and Resurrection of Ern Malley; to the ‘Children of Malley’ issues of Cordite; to parodies of Malley’s poems by poets such as John Kinsella, John Ashbery and John Tranter; to Peter Carey’s novel My Life as a Fake (2003), there is an ongoing engagement with not only the history of the hoax, but also the complexities of artistic praxis that it raises. The reception of these ‘new’ texts is heavily dependent on the reader’s knowledge, or lack thereof, of the Malley hoax. Indeed, without such knowledge the new texts are essentially without context, losing much of their raison d’être. In this sense the hoax fills a liminal space that mediates the new text’s reception, again providing a validating function. One of Malley’s legacies may well be his enduring role as a paratext.

  1. Genette, 1997, p. 7.
  2. Michel Foucault, ‘What is an Author’, in Finkelstein, David & McCleery, Alistair, The Book History Reader, Routledge, London, 2002, p. 228.
  3. Foucault, 2002, p. 230.
  4. Harris, in Angry Penguins, 1944, 4:2, in Heyward, 2003, p. 96.
  5. Harris, in Heyward, 2003, p. 96.
  6. Harris, in a letter to John Reed, in Heyward, 2003, p. 95.
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