Ballade of Lost Phrases: James McAuley


Peter Coleman

From The Last Intellectuals: Essays on Writers and Politics, Quadrant Books, 2010

CASSANDRA PYBUS’S The Devil and James McAuley begins by presenting James McAuley as a small man with an “almost feminine” voice. It moves on to suggest he was also a blaspheming drunk, strident snob, grovelling fanatic, arrogant racist, cynical adulterer and perhaps a homosexual cruiser. He may even have killed someone for the experience. He was a heavy smoker too!

This defamation of one of Australia’s greatest poets has been hugely subsidised: $84,000 from the Australian Research Council and I do not know how much from the Tasmanian Arts Advisory Board and by a Visiting Fellow¬ship from La Trobe University. The Australia Council’s Literature Fund also chipped in.

What jumps immediately to the eye, as you first flick through the pages, is the slapdash research. Here’s a quick sample. Pybus labels the Australian Nobel laureate Sir John Eccles a physicist. (He was a physiologist.) John Kerr, she says, “retired to London”. (He never lived in London and he retired to Sydney.) Joe Riordan, trade unionist, former MP, is not a Catholic. (He is.) Laurie Short’s legal struggles against the communists were in the High Court. (His unfortunate barristers Kerr and Wootten thought they were in the Arbitration Court.) Norman Mailer was a “member” of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. (He was its relentless critic from day one.)

She gets the wrong date for the death of the McAuleys’ son Andrew. The number of Australian deaths in the Vietnam War is wrong by some 100 men or about 20 per cent. It is a bagatelle that the German poet Haushofer, a courageous anti-Nazi executed by the SS, is described simply as “a high-ranking Nazi”. (McAuley translated his prison poems.)

Pybus misspells the names of Macintyre and Ritchie the historians, Wedgwood the anthropologist, McQueen the Marxist, Bungendore the town, Braden of the CIA, McAuley’s wife’s family name, the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom, the titles of major articles by McAuley and Richard Krygier, of John Kerr’s autobiography, and of the magazine Pacific Islands Monthly.

She refers to a “substantial subsidy” to Quadrant from the CIA. She means that when Quadrant started, the Paris-based Congress for Cultural Freedom contributed £200 a year towards rent, wages, contributors, printers, distributors, promotion. McAuley, like everyone else, was unaware of its ultimate source, and even Pybus does not have the chutzpah to suggest it had the slightest effect on McAuley’s adamantine integrity. (He might have noted, like Yehudi Menuhin, that there must be something to be said for the CIA after all, if it associates with “people like us”.)

It is good news, however, that the Quadrant office had a “glorious” harbour view. This escaped the rest of us who found only an ugly view of the Cahill Expressway.

But these are minor blemishes. It is the book’s basic theme that stretches the limits of triviality. McAuley was a committed opponent of communism. Therefore he must have been sick in the head. This is because he repressed his sexuality, especially his homosexuality, or displaced it onto the Devil. (Hence the book’s title.) It explains all his peculiarities, from nightmares to politics.

You mount this case against McAuley by following these eight simple rules:

1. Forget about Stalin’s and Mao’s killing of millions or the murderous persecution of writers and artists, Jews and Christians. Change the subject to sex.

One of the principal weaknesses of Australian writers has been a failure to grasp imaginatively the great and evil passion of the twentieth century - the totalitarian temptation that produced Auschwitz and the Gulag in the service of ideology. This extraordinary phenomenon has preoccupied the best writers of the world, but few Australians have fathomed it. Some began to explore the evil of Hitler and his national socialism but few were even able to approach its twins, Stalin and communism.

McAuley was one of the exceptions. His best work was his personal lyrics (early and late) and his religious meditations. But his political imagination, his quest to be, like Milton, “doctrinal to the nation”, enlivened much of his verse from the early poems on Hitler (“The Incarnation of Sirius”) to those lyrics of the 1950s which may for brevity and without much distortion be labelled Cold War Poems (“Vintage”; “Solemnity”; “Retreat”; “Nocturnal” and from one perspective his epic Captain Quiros).

His political instincts were honed by two influences - the freethinker John Anderson in the 1930s and the Catholic Bob Santamaria in the 1950s. Anderson taught McAuley philosophy at Sydney University. His metaphysics and aesthetics had no lasting influence on McAuley but his political and intellectual ordeal, as he worked his way from communism to anticommunism through the Pink Decade, made a deep impression. McAuley attended Anderson’s lectures deconstructing Marxism and Bolshevism and was inoculated for life against totalitarianism and its fellow travellers.

This was an intellectual position with few practical consequences outside the noisy arguments of pubs, parties and coffee shops. But it gave him a sense of communion with that mixed company of intellectuals from New York to New Delhi, from Madrid to Melbourne, described by Arthur Koestler - the veteran acrobats who had lost their dialectical balance, Trotskyites, “cryptos”, new statesmen, new republicans, totalitarian liberals, all hellishly uncomfortable in no-man’s-land. They did not yet have a common voice and would not find one for more than ten years when - determined to save civilisation or go down fighting - they at last came together to form the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Berlin in 1950.

By this time McAuley was already active in the Labor Party and was soon writing pamphlets (and satires) in its intra-party polemics - always in association with the anti-Stalinists. Soon after the defection of Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov, he met Santamaria, whose polemical and organisational flair he already admired. When the Labor Party split, McAuley stood with the DLP. The tensions of these years (captured in Captain Quiros) only abated when the brutal Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution of 1956-57 marked the beginning of public disenchantment with the Soviet mythos.

These great events are at the heart of the history of our times. McAuley experienced, observed, argued and wrote about them in uncounted essays, reports and poems. But Pybus has nothing to say about them, no counter-critique, no rival assessment - other than the idea that McAuley’s resistance to totalitarianism was “fuelled” by sexual neurosis, mainly suppressed homosexuality. So much for dissidents from Mandelstam to Solzhenitsyn who so deeply influenced McAuley. So much for Trotsky, Anderson, Bertrand Russell or George Orwell. Hers is the ultimate banality.

2. Collect gossip from rivals, enemies, old friends and quote it freely, no matter how silly, mean or plain wrong.

An improbable quotation may help. For example, when advising us of an alleged “sexual encounter” between McAuley and Amy Witting sixty years ago, Pybus tells us that McAuley humiliated Witting in a poem published “for all to read” in Hermes. I do not recognise the poem as quoted and am certain that no such poem exists. It certainly didn’t appear in Hermes. (Amy Witting herself once said to me: “McAuley was incapable of writing a bad poem, no matter how hard he tried.” But the ponderous litotes Pybus claims to quote — “not without honour” — would have been beyond him.)

3. If evidence is lacking for any calumny, just say it “possibly” or “presumably” or “probably” or “doubtless” or “may have been” or “must have been” this or that.

If hearsay (for example, a claim that McAuley was a determined killer on a patrol in New Guinea, based on some-thing said forty-five years ago by a man now dead to someone else who passed it on to Pybus in a telephone conversation), add: “Maybe this anecdote is true”. If unbelievable (for example, a “definitive” report that three days before John Kerr wielded his “bloody knife” against Prime Minister Whitlam, he was seen at McAuley’s department in the University of Tasmania), call it a “story” and stick in a note saying you are unable to confirm or deny.

4. Spray the text with such adjectives as vicious, strident, arrogant, tainted, impudent. If religion rears its ugly head, have McAuley “grovelling”.

5. Ignore his major work, his heart-rending poetry, unless you can twist it into evidence for the prosecution. It helps if, like Pybus, you have no feel for poetry, poetics or literary history.

6. Ignore McAuley’s entrepreneurial role in Australian literary life.

Never mention his generous help to younger poets. (Geoffrey Lehmann has written of his experience.) Or his promotion of older but not yet accepted writers (such as Patrick White at the time of the early Quadrant: “We have got to get used to the fact,” McAuley wrote, “that we have a very remarkable writer living amongst us.”) Or his enthusiasm for writers with whom he totally disagreed on politics (such as Frank Moorhouse). Or his refusal to give his editorial imprimatur to men of power who were also minor minstrels (such as his ministerial boss Paul Hasluck, whose submissions to Quadrant he had no hesitation in rejecting).

Overlook his launching of the quarterly Australian Literary Studies, or his Generations - the anthology from Chaucer to Vivian Smith, or his Primer of English Versification. Barely note in passing his Map of Australian Verse from the balladists to the 1960s. Never concede that Quadrant, which he founded, ever published anything of real merit. Make no reference to his key role in the Poetry Society, in the campaign to establish a chair of Australian Literature at Sydney University, or his acclaimed lectures to the Workers Educational Association or the Commonwealth Literary Fund. (One on Judith Wright was more a mass rally than a talk.)

Above all minimise the success of the famous Ern Malley hoax. Pybus’s misjudgment of this hoax is characteristic. She presents it as a piece of “tomfoolery” that turned “vicious” when McAuley attempted to add some intellectual and aesthetic point. Yet anyone with any awareness of McAuley’s development knows that, at that moment in his life, the hoax was at the heart of his Problematik.

“Madame Bovary, c’est moi”, said Flaubert, and McAuley may have said the same: “I am Ern Malley.” In satirising Ern, McAuley was satirising himself or rather his own early work such as he had collected in his unpublished apprentice volume called Prelude Suite and Chorale - twenty-five linked Malleyesque poems forming a livre composé in the manner of Charles Baudelaire or Christopher Brennan.

At the time of the hoax, he was painfully working his way from his early more-or-less surrealist obscurantism back to the High Road of poetry, to Virgil and Dante, Shakespeare and Milton. He now felt a revulsion from Angry Penguins, its charlatan verse, its Marxising politics and its toying with the symbolist agony that was central to his life. The hoax was no tomfoolery. It was a grimly earnest palinode of modernism.

There were moments of farce, as in any hoax. But the riveting importance to McAuley of its underlying ideas is further shown in his continual expounding of them in subsequent years in lectures, essays, editorials and books. The philosophic range and engagement of The End of Modernity, for example, make it one of the most important literary critiques ever published in Australia. It is in any case an essential companion to the Ern Malley poems. Pybus gives no indication of having read more than its preface. (She also misunderstands its rejoinder to Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination: McAuley’s intention was to offer collaboration with Trilling in the recovery of poetry and imagination rather than “to mount a challenge” to him. They shared a heartfelt dismay at the state of contemporary literature.)
Nor does Pybus appear to have even read McAuley’s crucial lectures “An Approach to Poetry” delivered in 1956 to the Workers Educational Association. Yet it would be foolish to try to understand the literary and socio-political ideas that animated Ern (or Quadrant or McAuley’s life in the 1950s) without studying these lectures, especially “The Uses of Poetry” and “The Crisis of the Modern Period”.

But all is not lost. Despite her indifference to these central issues at the heart of the hoax, she manages some speculation about the opening poem of the Malley series, “Durer: Innsbruck, 1495”. In an essay McAuley wrote some thirty years later, he noted that Dürer “was not indifferent to the attractions of young males”. So perhaps the poem is a coded homosexual “come-on”!

7. Never refer to McAuley’s role in any liberal cause, such as his work to wind down state censorship or his court appearance as a witness for Oz in its prosecution for obscenity.

When the prosecutor asked him to agree that an Oz cartoon was offensive to community standards, McAuley’s reply was typical of him: “We do not seem to be talking about the same community. The one I live in would hardly regard this as a matter for exceptional comment.” Or his public criticisms of the White Australia policy. Or his condemnation of apartheid. Or his call to make Papuans and New Guineans Australian citizens. If you cannot avoid his liberal policies on decolonisation in New Guinea, play them down.

Pybus is unable to dismiss McAuley’s devotion to New Guinea, his deep feeling for Melanesian traditions, art and festivals, his commitment to mediating between these traditions and the inevitable assaults of modernity, his conse¬quent caution about early political independence. Compelled to acknowledge something of this, she does her best to diminish it by making out that his engagement was ideological and theoretical and was soon forgotten.

Yet some of McAuley’s New Guinea essays are among the best in Australian literature and among the most enduring in the history of colonisation and decolonisation. We are lucky to have such a literary record of our “New Guinea enterprise” and the collection and publication of his New Guinea papers is overdue - as indeed is the publication of a selection from his vast occasional journal¬ism, not to mention his literary and political correspondence.

One consequence of such publication would be to make it a little harder to distort his views, at least out of simple ignorance. For example, Pybus announces to her readers that “McAuley had no time for conscientious objectors to the Vietnam war”. As it happens, I was editor of the Bulletin at the time of the often furious public debate over conscription and arranged an exchange, a sort of symposium between Max Charlesworth, T.B. Millar, Brian Buckley (of the Bulletin) and James McAuley. At the heart of McAuley’s very qualified defence of conscription was his argument that any defence policy must make allowance for conscientious objectors. It would be “odd” to argue, he wrote, that anyone who disagreed with the government should not be required to serve. But, he went on:

“if a man is deeply convinced that his government is embarked on a wicked course of action fraught with grave consequences, he may feel morally compelled to bear witness to his conviction and refuse service - and if his conviction has been soberly and conscientiously arrived at one must respect him personally for his refusal. But this is something an individual must decide for himself against that state, accepting at the same time the consequences of civil disobedience. He cannot expect the state to hand out exemptions as a right. The state may of course do so as a matter of concession, if it thinks that this is practical and prudent in the circumstances.”

This is hardly impatient intolerance, with “no time” for conscientious objectors. One reason this exchange comes easily to mind is that McAuley’s argument appealed to Frank Packer, the owner of the Bulletin, who had his own reservations about the government’s policy of selective conscription and arranged for the symposium to be printed as a Bulletin Pamphlet.

8. Introduce the whole lampoon as an illustration of the harm done when a poet gets mixed up with politics. Forget Milton, Dryden, Shelley, Eliot and Auden. Towards the end, slip in a note that McAuley was sometimes a remarkable teacher. That may add some pretence of objectivity.

Let the poet have the last word - in this excerpt from his brief political apologia delivered shortly before his death, his autobiographical “Culture and Counter-Culture”, in which he traced his passage from youthful anarchism (his personal Homage to Catalonia) to his later conservatism:

“I am now fortunate enough to be able to say that never in my life have I been an advocate or an apologist for movements or regimes that trample systematically on liberal principles and human rights and are essentially based on murder and lies. I have never defended the misdeeds of any terrorist organisation or dictatorial regime of any complexion. I have never been a retailer of propaganda made in Moscow or Peking or Hanoi or any other centre devoted to the subversion of free countries like Australia. I have never blurred the distinction between free and unfree systems or exalted an unfree system above ours. I have never denied that offensive action by a totalitarian power is aggression; I have never stigmatized defensive action by the victims as provocation."

“By the canons of the left - that is, of those whose moral authority consists in the fact that they have done some or all of these things - this qualifies me as illiberal, ‘extremist’, ‘reactionary’, ‘undemocratic’, and of course (a word recently applied to me by an ALP minister of the crown in conversation with friends of mine) a ‘fascist’."

“If I for once express some personal resentment, it is not only to say that I am sick to death of this kind of corrupt malice, but also to denounce it on behalf of many others who have suffered similar and worse vilification for the most honourable reasons.”

Pybus remarks that on the printed page this speech looked “rather silly”.

I SHOULD mention that Pybus acknowledges me as one of those who helped her “more than they will ever know”. Whatever that may mean, it must include two lengthy conversations in my home and the access I gave her to material I have deposited in the National Library as well as to the Cultural Freedom/Quadrant archive of which I am a custodian. At no point did she suggest that her approach to McAuley was other than respectful and admiring, if not reverential. I regret my co-operation and can only let my experience stand as a cautionary tale.

There it is: A silly book degrading one of Australia’s greatest writers, subsidised by some $100,000, and pub-lished by a university press. It’s your taxes at work.

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