The Devil and James McAuley

     A Review by Peter Coleman
This book begins by presenting James McAuley as a small man with a `tutored' and `almost feminine' voice. It moves on to suggest he also was a blaspheming alcoholic, 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 subsidied: $84,000 from the Australian Research Council and I do not know how much from the Tasmanian Arts Advisory Board and by a Visiting Fellowship from LaTrobe University. The AustraliaCouncil also chipped in.

What jumps immediately to the eye, as you first flick through the pages, is the slapdash research. Here's a quick selection. She 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 and 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 the Arbitration Court.) Norman Mailer was a `member' of the Congress for Cultural Freedom.(He was a relentless critic from day one.

On more than one occasion Pybus misspells the names of the historians Macintyre and Ritchie, Wedgwood the anthropologist, McQueen the Marxist, Bungendore the town, Braden of the CIA, or McAuley's wife's family name, the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom, the titles of articles by McAuley and Richard Krygier, of John Kerr's autobiography, and of the magazine Pacific Islands Monthly. She gets the date wrong for the death of the McAuleys' son Andrew.

The number of Australian deaths in the Vietnam War is wrong by about some 95 men.It is a bagatelle that the German poet Haushofer, a courageous anti-Nazi executed by the SS, is described simply as a `a high-ranking Nazi'. (McAuley translated his prison poems.)

She claims that from its foundation in the 1950's Quadrant magazine received a `substantial subsidy' from the CIA. She means that the Paris-based Congress for Cultural Freedom committed some $40 week towards rent, wages, contributors, printers, distribution and promotion. 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 in on to the Devil. (Hence the book's title.) It explains all his peculiarities, from his nightmares to his politics.

You mount this case against McAuley by following a few simple rules. First, forget about Stalin's and Mao's killing of millions or their murderous persecution of writers and artists.Instead, change the subject to sex.

Second, collect gossip from rivals, enemies, old friends. Call it oral history and quote it freely, no matter how silly, mean or plain wrong it may be. An improbable quotation may help. For example, when advising us of an alleged `sexual encounter' between McAuley and Amy Witting 60 years ago, Pybus tells us that McAuley humiliated Witting in a poem published `for all to read' in Hermes. I do not recognise the words of the poem as quoted and am certain that no such poem exists. (It assuredly never appeared in Hermes.)

Third, 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, add: `Maybe this anecdote is true'. If utterly unbelievable, call it a `story' and stick in a note saying you are unable to confirm or deny it.

Fourth, spray the text with such adjectives as "vicious", "strident:", "arrogant", "tainted", "impudent" and "fanatical". If religion rears its ugly head, have McAuley "grovelling".

Fifth, 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.

Sixth, ignore McAuley's entrepreneurial role in Australian literary life.  Never mention his generous help to younger poets. Overlook his launching of Australian Literary Studies, or Generations (his anthology from Chaucer to Vivian Smith), or his Primer of English Versification. Barely note in passing A Map of Australian Verse, his anthology/ history from the balladists to the 1960's. Never concede that Quadrant, which he founded, ever published anything of the slightest merit. Make no reference to his key role in the Poetry Society or his acclaimed lectures to the Workers Education Association or the Commonwealth Literary Fund. Minimise the success of the Ern Malley hoax.

Seventh, never refer to McAuley's role in any liberal cause, such as his work to wind down state censorship or his court appearance as witness for Oz against obscenity charges. 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.

Eighth, 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. Then towards the end, slip in a note that McAuley was sometimes a remarkable teacher. That may add some pretence of objectivity..

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 to me that her approach to McAuley was other than respectful if not reverential. I regret my cooperation and can only let my experience stand as a cautionary tale.

There it is: a silly book degrading a great writer, subsidised by about $100,000 and published by a university press. It's your taxes at work.

The Weekend Australian, July 17-18, 1999.  A longer version was published in Australian Essays 1999 edited by Peter Craven.  Peter Coleman's books include The Heart of James McAuley.

the rathouse
Peter Coleman
Cassandra Pybus . UQP . 321pp
the Revivalist