Excerpt from Damaged Men
The precarious lives of James McAuley and Harold Stewart
Allen & Unwin, Australia. 326 pp. with 23 b/w images. ISBN 186508445X
“...one day it will be irrefutably proved that James McAuley and Harold Stewart were really figments of the imagination of the real-life Ern Malley and in fact never existed!”
Copyright © Michael Ackland and Allen & Unwin 2001. Please respect the fact that this material is copyright. It is made available here for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose. You can visit Allen & Unwin's Internet site, and you may purchase this book from bookstores in Australia:
All such pieces of juvenilia are never to be printed, reprinted, published, republished, reproduced by Xerox or any other method; nor are they to be distributed as cuttings, or in manuscript, typescript, or photocopies thereof; nor are they to be recorded on tape or disc, or broadcast or telecast at any time in the future... Such juvenilia are being preserved only for the author’s possible reference and use during his lifetime and should be destroyed on his death. (Original emphasis) [note 1]
EVEN THE NEUTRALITY of the printed word cannot silence the over-insistent, almost obsessive note in Harold Stewart’s final instructions to posterity, written as he approached his eightieth birthday. His past was sacrosanct. Certain pages were not to be reopened, much less exposed to public scrutiny.
Cover of Damaged Men
Similarly James McAuley, knowing he had less than a year to live, endeavoured to shape his posthumous reputation. He, too, had always kept certain chapters of his life tightly closed from prying eyes, even deeming letter-writing an indecent form of self-exposure. And the previous year in Quadrant [magazine], having already burnt his accumulated papers and correspondence, he affirmed implicitly his right to use subterfuge to defend his privacy: ‘Authors have placed themselves irretrievably in the public domain. It is up to them to conceal, if they can, what they do not want posterity to know; for inexorably posterity will claim the right to know what can be known’. [note 2]
I saw myself in a crowded room, talking, drinking, saluting friends — a cocktail sort of scene. Suddenly, as if the vision was a painted picture, it was switched over to its reverse side, presenting an utterly different scene, which I nevertheless understood to be the first scene in its real meaning. I was a single cell of life in an absolute dead desert.
This he interprets as signifying ‘a final aloneness, an irreducible separateness’, as well as that ‘inmost point of isolation’ where mystical or supernatural experience may occur.
Harold Stewart, 1983
Stewart outlived McAuley by twenty years, and often reflected on their past. Sitting in his third-storey apartment in Kyoto, gazing out over the Eastern ranges, he vented his frustration at a life-time spent on the periphery of fame and cursed the daily trials which interrupted his creative work. Some of this bitterness was justified. When the local yakusa were not shooting it out with police in the street below, a chorus of neighbourhood barking reverberated around the hills and buildings, reminding him that he had always been beset by hell hounds since a huge black monster bit him at the age of six. Yet he could also be savage, especially when asked about his long friendship with McAuley:
In our school days at Fort St. Boys’ High [School, in Sydney], James and I were not friends but rivals, each editing the school literary magazine in turn. We became friends but only in our late teens after leaving school and remained so all through the 1940s and 1950s, until James was converted to Roman Catholicism, after which we drifted apart.
The past, in Harold’s hands, was subtly malleable. Jim had given up smoking by 1966, but the anachronism does highlight an unacknowledged bias. The McAuley depicted here is the one who has lived on in cultural histories as the combative editor of Quadrant, the opponent of moral and ecclesial liberation, the staunch ally of the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) [a right-wing splinter party — J.T.] and the defender of Australian engagement in Vietnam. Yet beneath the Cold War warrior remained the flawed and generous figure of earlier years whom Stewart knew so well, though he, like the acknowledged period of their friendship, is passed over in silence.
James McAuley (left) and Roman Catholic Cardinal James Freeman
By the mid-1950s McAuley had at last begun to fulfil his early promise, but the past still lay heavily on him. The philanderer in him never died. Nor did the tormented doubter who, when overcome with recurring bouts of malaria, registered that the pit of despair into which he fell became ever deeper, its sides prohibitively steep, making him feel the failed individual he had always feared to be.
That stealthy breathing, is it mine?
McAuley acknowledges here something monstrous within himself, while the contemporaneous poem ‘Warning’ describes feared depths of the self, which can trigger ‘grief and madness’, as well as ‘terrible dreams / That sickened the heart’. Both Jim and Harold were deeply divided individuals, desperately seeking strategies for self-control or deliverance and destined, each after his own fashion, to become what they had projected as supposed nonsense during the Ern Malley hoax — ‘a black swan of trespass on alien waters’.
Chapter One — In the realm of Porlock
I come from Porlock. Well, how was I to know?
ONE SATURDAY AFTERNOON in early October 1943, two conscripts sat huddled together in a temporary wooden building, tucked behind a massive, blue-stone edifice on St Kilda Road [in Melbourne], plotting war. They had L Block of Victoria Barracks to themselves. McAuley was the duty officer, Stewart the rostered NCO.
‘Swamps, marshes, borrow-pits and other
Ultimately, their plot relied on Harris’ infatuation with surrealism and his lack of critical discernment — others would say on his generous enthusiasm and eclectic taste — as well as on the engrained local philistinism which would reduce the haughty editor of Angry Penguins to a laughing-stock once the hoax became public knowledge.
Think of his fate had Porlock been less kind;
As children of Sydney’s western suburbs, Jim and Harold were progeny of Porlock and they struggled for decades to throw off its baneful influence. Even in far-off Japan, Stewart bemoaned the invasions of Porlockers who prevented him from writing, while Jim, as a Catholic convert and fierce anti-communist, tried to reshape Porlock himself.
By the mid-1920s they were settled in a brick, double-fronted Victorian villa at 52 The Crescents, Homebush, a suburb best known during Jim’s formative years for its stockyards and abattoir. His earliest memories were of immediate impressions, like the overpowering fragrance of wisteria or the antics of the fowls behind the house, while in front trains thundered by on the Western line. Its tracks lent his street a bleak aspect unrelieved by the plain Californian bungalows opposite of Loftus Crescent.
I held firm your arm in my hand
Remembered scenes of ‘sun-glare on the wet sand’ and exposed bodies evoke Sydney and a summer romance — linked now with ‘the unfulfilled want of you /... / who are denied to me’. A related, acute sense of male beauty infuses ‘Model. The Artist Speaks’:
‘Oh that you never spoke! but only stood
The model’s words are coarse (‘all that’s foul upon the earth’) compared to the projected ideal, but the artist chooses life over art, supplicating him to speak and ‘break the poem’s spell’. By December 1934 the point of absolute rupture, foreshadowed by tensions and setbacks, is reached in the poems ‘Ambition’ and ‘Betrayal’. Here bitter frustration and hurt inspire, not great verse, but direct speech:
How, now have you slipped back,
Disappointed in his passion by one who is ‘very young’, he seeks solace in art — not for him the realm of heterosexual normality or to be ‘one of the mere mass of robots’: ‘Instead I will surmount / I’ll overspread the years, I will span on to greatness’. The final nails in this coffin, the first of many closed upon his humbled emotions and shut off from curious onlookers, are scornful rejection and perjured faith (‘What did my honour matter to revenge?’), together with his lover’s derision aimed at poetry for being ‘a fool’s toy / a self-sympathy, a dramatic casing for an over-sensitive and sentimental soul’.
it was characteristic of Stewart, typical of his career during the next few years. In the narrower point of view he was hopeless as a student for he cared nothing for the priceless marks that lead to narrower success. But it showed too, in the larger way, how intense his study could be: he had chosen a path and could pursue it to the exclusion of all else.
In The Fortian of 1935 he took revenge on his dreary neighbourhood by transforming its geraniums, rubber plants and terracotta roofs into the stuff of aesthetic verse. About his academic disgrace, personal humiliation and deep sense of powerlessness he could do little. Years later notebook entries reveal bottled-up resentment: ‘Childhood will be the last slavery to survive. Fortunately it is one out of which some grow in time’.
a creeping sense of fear
How was an adolescent able to evoke so powerfully this extreme mental state? Messieurs Waldock and Howarth of Sydney University probably never asked themselves this question when they awarded this work the annual Poetry Prize. The mysterious voices heard in subsequent years were probably already audible to the teenager, and in ‘The White Giant Comes...’ the Leaving student of 1933 projected upon a ‘snow-laden cedar’ mute anguish, associated with ‘terrors of the dawn’ and ‘agony of a soul beyond the world’, in another foretaste of the demons who haunted his later years.
Chapter Two — Around the Quad
...I wade in a wide-oncoming night,
A MAJOR FOCUS of McAuley and Stewart’s literary activities at Sydney University, and a common cause which brought them together, was the embattled magazine Hermes. In 1935 it had completed fifty years of publication, but its jubilee was marred when the SRC (Students’ Representative Council) voted to reduce its usual three numbers to one, so that its editors were forced to exhort their potential readership to ‘keep on paying for us’ in the face of opinion which ‘think[s] us dear at 4d. a time’.
Rain on our nakedness will not be warm,
With a dialectical panache that would have done credit to a Marxist, he began to read setbacks as evidence of his uncommon gifts or to envisage them as necessary trials preceding his apotheosis.
A lovesick pansy burbles with delight
Here McAuley held forth on the defects of his contemporaries’ verse. The above lines from ‘Arty Cafe’ by Garry Lyle were, in his view, the work of ‘a man who suffered intense peripheral irritation without being able to transform it inwardly into a poetic revelation’, while Stewart’s aesthetic poems were too precious, too contrived. [note 26] Yet when Harold made his usual unobtrusive entry, looking for all the world ‘like an honest man of the suburbs come to make some repair to the house’, Jim’s eyes lit up. [note 27] Soon they would be lost in animated discussion of their latest drafts, McAuley exclaiming at an unexpected felicity, Stewart deftly weaving resonating word-plays. Minutes expanded easily into hours passed over renewed cups of tea or coffee, as ideas and phrases were freely exchanged in unconscious preparation for the co-production of their most illustrious brain-child, Ern Malley.
I hope you saw Hope on Hope in his review of ARNA. This is one of the major pleasures of living, this yearly comment of Hope on himself; this year it ran: ‘There are also two religious poems by A.D. Hope, the well-known god-fancier’. Lovely man, Hope. Nice and nasty. [note 28]
Stewart’s own caustic squibs included a sketch of the showman McAuley with his ‘wardrobeful of attitudes’ who, ‘if his gallery applaud for more, / Will rant them vast superior platitudes, / And autograph their arses at the door’. [note 29] Also the usually genial McAuley could, if touched to the quick, ‘distil a fine old, two hundred proof venom’ in a clever though savagely distorted way, [note 30] and Harold had good reason to be wary of him:
Stewart is nice, he gets his tuck
Even in their sharp-tongued circles Jim enjoyed the reputation of being without peer in producing impromptu verse, and he could be equally unsparing of his own shortcomings. For whereas Stewart’s precarious self-image permitted the expression of neither serious self-doubts nor scarifying self-criticism, McAuley’s intense self-awareness fed his creative exuberance: ‘God endorsed the slavey’s spit, / And made me, as my friends admit, / A very nasty piece of shit’. [note 32]
It is a dismal but indisputable fact that most people are so blinded by habits of thought and action, so protected from life by inherited and acquired rituals and dogmas, as to be but rarely capable of fresh, first-hand experience either of themselves or their environment. [note 35]
From this assumed eminence Harold could also speak sneeringly of the scene of his most recent debacle: ‘It now seems to me something of a miracle that in this super-high-school (known euphemistically in the local circles as a University) anyone should ever have noticed them [the modern reproductions]’. ‘Interest in the arts’, he asserted, ‘would stagnate in the usual hack academic backwaters’. [note 36]
I can cut the brain film here — the preliminaries
McAuley seconded Hope’s sentiment and sought in transitory embraces an answer to his nagging fear of emotional impairment. Instead, his liaisons sometimes ended traumatically. On one occasion friends were asked to help him pay the cost of an abortion, while Witting confessed that McAuley made her life ‘hell and misery... He treated me as a sexual dog with great cruelty, real spite, and also of course as a great tease. He needed to torment me because he needed me’. [note 42]
In the mid dark, the batblind hour,
Accounts of his being a prey to ‘terrorgaps and dreamfogs’ commence during his university period, although this may reflect less their prevalence than his maturing powers of self-analysis, as well as the presence of outside witnesses to his plight. Witting, who claims to have known him then as well as anyone could, maintains that he feared for his sanity because of inner voices and his night ordeals. [note 53] What form these took is unclear, except for one report of white butterflies eating his eyes. [note 54] Blurred boundaries, crumbling consciousness and the terrors of dawn in ‘Preludes’ recall the mental disequilibrium registered in his Fort Street verse, as well as the ‘twilight zone’ depicted in ‘A Small Testament’ (1976):
There lies between sleeping and waking a twilight zone of hypnagogic images. The dream-making powers meet the dawning or dusk of waking awareness. The images arise, not as in full dream where they reign with no other reality than their own; on the other hand, they are dream images even though consciousness may faintly permeate them with its meanings or reactions.
For Stewart, too, the late 1930s was a time of mental disarray which, in an intriguing notebook passage, he dubbed his schizophrenic period. Contemporaries, however, are adamant that he was not technically schizophrenic, while his inveterate need for privacy militated against hurtful revelations or an account of his actual state. Instead, although purporting to be frankly autobiographical, this entry offers a neatly periodised but familiar paradigm of spiritual enlightenment, psychiatrically updated and couched, as he remarked, in ‘monstrous hieroglyphic jargon’:
1 — Before 1936 I was not yet grown up. I was not aware of having ideas. I was lived by my experience instead of living it. I projected my mental contents on to my environment & rather made no distinction between inside & outside. Climax was ‘Phoenix Wings’ ’37.
In the privacy of his notebooks, the outwardly feckless, rootless failure could remake his life as he willed it to be, imposing a satisfying order on a period which, years after, he preferred to pass over in silence. Like many of his sweeping, backward glances these entries from the early 1940s obscure crucial facts. He later confessed to McAuley that he was ‘always falling apart under the impact of the world’ and becoming ‘hopelessly lost and scattered fragments’, [note 55] and the notebook attempt to redefine schizophrenia as an awareness of dichotomies, such as inner and outer or reflecting and unreflecting, points arguably to a preoccupation with his own mental state as being different or disturbed.
Unfortunately, I had to take my choice: either I could humbly go down on my knees before the nature of things as they are and admit my error, or I could go mad... remaining voluntarily in hell to pander to it [my intellectual pride]... I really had no choice. The Nature of things as they are demanded that I adopt the way of genius not the way of madness. [note 56]
A self-proclaimed ‘aristocrat of the soul’, Stewart imagined deliverance was at hand: ‘My life has run its course, it is fulfilled & consummated. I can rise no higher than this, I have achieved the summit of human experience in the art of living... “God” walks with me’. Dangerously removed from reality, this exalted perception had not even had to withstand criticism because, in the politicised 1930s, it had been ‘necessary to dissemble one’s real allegiances and disguise oneself under a cloak of superficiality, if one was to retain any friends at all (including McAuley at that time)’. [note 57]
Chapter Three — Fowle Ayres and false starts
I sometimes think we are a bold but not a brave people.
ARROGANT SELF-ASSURANCE coupled with withering contempt for the abysmal level of Australian cultural life was de rigueur among McAuley’s university set. Communities got the poets and newspapers they deserved, Jim claimed, pointing to articles in the Sydney Morning Herald on the eve of war which were ‘gutless wonders that shirk the development of anything but surface analysis of purely political moves’. [note 1]
Beverley Nicholls... . a vomit
In 1939 Jim set about giving fresh direction to his life. He now had a collection of interlinked poems to place and this could be done more easily in Sydney, even if his heart was set on a London publisher. Quipping that Australia already had enough backyard industries, he avowed a disinclination to further enrich [Sydney publisher] Angus & Robertson. There was also the question of an eventual career in tertiary or secondary teaching for a man who seemed to his friends ‘one of nature’s Professors of English’. [note 14]
I think I didn’t fit their pattern. It was quite evident to them, of course, that my attendance was exceedingly patchy, that I was clearly on my own and not attaching myself to them or being the faithful student, being formed in their mould.... the M.A. thesis brought it to a head, in a sense. This was alien to them.
His attitude, in other words, had put academics off-side, as in his third year when he added public scoffing to his cavalier disregard of the system. First, he was reported to have said at an SRC meeting that lectures were ‘completely superfluous’. Then he wrote to Honi Soit to correct this overstatement. Occasionally lectures were of use, he conceded, but at issue was freedom of choice: ‘a student’s business is to study certain questions in the best way he can, and it is not his business to waste his time at the dictation of his teachers. If he wants to waste his time there are many better ways which his own inclinations will suggest’. [note 17] His disdain for the English Department was especially pronounced, while he let it be known that he had ‘seen through the traditional reactionary academic... futilities’. [note 18]
Anarchy is a condition of society in which no man rules over another. To the Christian it is the rule of God, when the Kingdom of Heaven comes to earth. To the Communist it is the rule of a dialectical process, an idea... The artist, who is also an anarchist, parts company with them all. Not only does he object to postponing the free society to a later date, he distrusts this delegation of his power to myths or abstractions. He wants to be free from gods as well as masters. And he wants to be free now. [note 23]
Though not always as coherent as in this essay of 1944, Hooton was an enthusiastic conversationalist, and Somerville encouraged him to seek out McAuley when the Department of Education sent the Sydney poet to Newcastle Junior High School in 1942. Frequent visits and mutual appreciation followed. Here for McAuley was poetic fellowship as well as intellectual relief from the tedium of a school which taught only up to Year 3.
What did you say Pope? Whatever is is trite
Hooton’s advocacy of individual rights and untrammelled thought, together with his aim of ‘try[ing] to spread disaffection among gun-fodder’, held considerable appeal for McAuley. [note 25] But Jim was not blind to the huge gap between the Englishman’s claim to meticulous craftsmanship and his rambling productions, nor to his woolly concepts. Horne pinpointed ‘a terrific din hiding a simple confusion in everything he says’. Harris spoke superiorly of ‘our anarchist bull [who] careers madly through his intellectual fog’. [note 26] Friendship softened McAuley’s verdict at the outset, although years later he described Hooton as ‘an anarchist whose writings were without talent or coherent ideas’ and, more personally, as having helped him to grasp that ‘poetic revolution is in its sphere as much of a disaster in practice as political revolution is in its sphere’. [note 27]
He is a terrible man when in an intellectual tantrum. A Hooton poem is a one-man wrestling match. Hooton v. Hooton refereed by Hooton. There is some ‘real rasslin’ and the rest is just grandstanding. The audience sit around and barrack: ‘He’s down! No, he’s up again! Kick him Harry! Look, the dirty bastard’s using his teeth!’ When Harry rises smiling to his feet we all shout: ‘Who won, Harry?’, and he says: ‘I did. The proceeds will go to the international working class’.
Somerville railed at McAuley’s sniggering evasiveness. But Max Harris would have been well pleased had the McAuley-Stewart team shown comparable circumspection the following year when they deployed their latest fictional character before the reading public.
Let the good or the bad cause triumph, the one or the other land,
McAuley, the man who a year before had publicly wondered out aloud ‘what dark thoughts lurk in his [the propagandist’s] mind about the nature of this war, that he so distrusts the effect of truth on the Australian public’, [note 37] now found himself in a related role, working camps with the Army Education Unit in the Hunter River area. This billet saved him from the front line and kept him close to his young wife.
My health continues to be as bloody, literally & figuratively, as ever. There is still a manpower problem at the Water Works & the Sewerage contractors have gone out on strike out of sympathy for the Butcher Girl of Portland. Mine enemes [sic]contrived against me & all’s to do again. I menstruate so vehemently that my Kotex requires changing thrice daily. I am contemplating a tender little ballad: —
The letter is signed ‘Yours as usual, Euthanasia’. Moreover, he remained, as McAuley remarked, ‘intermittently ill in a sub-clinical fashion’.42 These cumulative woes, he later maintained, accounted for two of his six years spent in the army — an exaggerated claim — and made him ‘B class and... eligible for a base-bludger’s job’.43 [bludger: a shirker who imposes on others. — J.T.] Equally important, they either created or reinforced in him an acute sensitivity to his health, as well as a predisposition to urge its poor state as a means of escaping unpalatable obligations both during and after the war.
At the moment I am likely to break out into a tirade and tear Herbert Read to pieces. In his latest anthology of quotations of psychic uplift and social hope from The Great Psychologists, he refers to Chinese Painting as ‘Impressionist’ & describes it as the product of ‘the introvert sensation type’ or something. ‘Culture forsooth! Albert get me my gun!’ [note 45]
Harold’s Jungian phase was clearly waning, and although Read was out of range, his acolytes among the Angry Penguins were not, and would soon bear the brunt of Stewart’s resentment.
Then in desperation
Harold found digs in South Melbourne. Jim and Norma, after a stay with the Hopes in Molesworth Street, Kew, moved into a flat at 5 Collins Street, and the old ‘Hope- McAuley-Stewart combine’, as Harold referred to it, was reactivated.
Isn’t it Fun to be a Forward-Looking and a Progressive and a Vital New Poet — you know — alert, sensitive and Aware, and kind of stuff like that!... And then knowing so much about things, having Culture, being up in Picasso and Hieronymus Bosch and Henry Miller and Freud and Rilke and so on till you just about shit yourself wondering how a single brain could hold so much. Jeez you must look in the mirror sometimes and say: How is it I’m so good? [note 54]
Admittedly McAuley has a point about the Penguins’ excesses. A puff in their magazine forThe Vegetative Eye promised that ‘its original and vital form alone is bound to cause the keenest interest and discussion’, combining as it does ‘sensitive and personal prose, with the haunting images and qualities of Kafka and Rilke’. [note 55] But were the Penguins really sillier than Harry, who was subjected to far less damaging ripostes?
Had the writer’s ability matched his conception we should have had the picture of a living man. As it is, we have a Zombi [sic], a composite corpse, assembled from the undigested fragments of authors Mr. Harris has swallowed without chewing and animated by psychological Voodoo.
By a happy coincidence, as Harris no doubt thought, the June issue of Angry Penguins contained an implicit vindication of his breadth of vision in its scoop publication of the complete works of the late and unknown Ern Malley. The first 34 pages are devoted to commemorating him.
What say we send it anon. to Max with an arrow pointing out the head of Lois Lidden in Ern’s crutch while he seems about to lighten her heart with darkie melodies on the banjo? Note, too, the aesthetic cut of the Platesque beard (care Platesque!). His other hand seems to be groping something or one under the dining-room table. A cunningly conceived conceit, very excellent good, is’t not? It hath the true rare metaphysical keeping prick’d out in right merrie [sic] symbols. [note 60]
The sexual innuendos which Detective Vogelsang discerned in Malley’s verse, during the subsequent trial of Harris for publishing obscene works, were quite in keeping with the hoaxers’ habits. So, too, the alleged service done to local taste and commonsense was clearly secondary to the satisfaction of cutting Maxie down to size and proving their own superiority.
We have known these declensions,
Also, Jim may have wielded Ern’s pen, but the poems were genuinely collaborative and, as Stewart underlined years later, ‘the standardised error’ concerning the hoax was ‘that while J.P. McA was obviously the front legs and head with the brains, I was merely the hind legs (forgetting that it is between the hind legs that there hangs all the potency of the donkey!).’ [note 63]
To where in a shuddering embrace
Now, too, the arid interim state described in compositions prior to McAuley’s mobilisation is recast with compound interest in ‘Petit Testament’ where, as Witting remarked, the intrusion of the ‘idiot voice’ into otherwise comprehensible verse is ‘delayed too long’:
In the twenty-fifth year of my age
The evocation of a funeral of at least one aspect of himself was, however, premature. For far from signalling a mental change, these poems attest to a recurring predicament marked by acute internal divisions and psychic disturbance. These led to the war-time composition of three ‘Nightmare Songs’, which presented as McAuley’s night-time companion ‘a big man in a stove-pipe hat’:
He’s my shadow on the wall
Portrayed here, in Witting’s words, was a ‘banished part of himself that he feared’, [note 66] or an alien other split off from the rational self, and capable of committing what Malley imaged as ‘rape’ or an irreversible, defiling deed.
The complete poems of Ern Malley (without the ‘Preface and Statement’) are published in the Northern Hemisphere in The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Australian Poetry paperback: 474 pages ; Publisher: Dufour Editions; ISBN: 1852243155, via Amazon;
Jacket 17 — June 2002
This material is copyright © Michael Ackland, Allen & Unwin
and Jacket magazine 2002