Hoaxes like the one perpetrated by James McAuley and Harold Stewart on “Angry Penguins” have been legion. In pre-war Paris, where there were at any one time at least 20,000 artists, not more than three of whom in each generation became distinguished painters, there was at least one hoax a year that set all Europe laughing.
The classic example was that of the brace of English students who tied a whitewash brush to the tail of a donkey, dipped the brush into buckets of various colors, backed the animal up against a canvas, labelled the result “And O’erthe Adriatic Sank the Sun” and sent it to a Salon, having carefully photographed the whole proceedings. It was hailed as the masterpiece of the season.
Then there was the famous drainpipe statue. A Dutch sculptor of mediocre talents was asked to do something for the Beaux Arts Ball. He constructed a toreador mounted on a horse composed of drainpipes, with bicycle tyres to represent the horse’s protruding entrails. Somebody suggested as a joke that the sculptor send it to the Salon, and he woke up the morning after the exhibition to find that the critics had accepted him as a genius — “a modern Don Quixote tilting against shams,” as one commentator put it.
There was the American girl, an accomplished musician, who bet the proprietor of the Paris-American artshop that, although she had never put a brush to canvas, she could make a hit with her first picture. She won the wager easily. The funny thing about it was that she was taken in herself, as was the sculptor. After the critics had found all sorts of esoteric qualities in her painting she began to see them in it herself, became a rotten painter and was lost to music.
The sculptor took the valuation of the critics and proceeded to specialise in drainpipe sculpture. Years after the original work had made its sensation an Australian painter went to see him in his studio and found him with a butler packing a lot of drainpipes for dispatch to a gallery in Berlin.
“But that toreador of yours was joke,” expostulated the Australian artist. The sculptor drew himself up and looked at his interlocutor. “That was no joke, he said solemnly. “That was my unconscious speaking.”
A similar case was that of the poet who showed to a literary circle a blank sheet of paper surrounded with a, gold edge and asked them to admire it. “You dolts!” he shouted when they said they could see nothing in: it. “Don’t you see in that sheet of paper a whole world of unexpressed ideas?”
And in a sense he was right. A blank sheet of paper can mean anything you like to think it, just as a word can mean anything you tike to think it. any word can conjure up associations and every word in a. dictionary has associations for us. But, although there is the material for all the plays of Shakspeare in a dictionary, nobody would say that a dictionary is a work of art. A million monkeys banging on a million typewriters for a million years might eventually thump out all the plays of Shakspeare but we would not call them dramatic geniuses.
The editors of “Angry Penguins” were hoodwinked by their own belief in their omniscience as judges, and that is all there is about it. Their defence or apologia or whatever you like to call is the quaint assertion that, though the creators of the mythical Ern Malley are not fine poets, their poetical garage mechanic is still a great poet; in effect the authors of the hoax deceived them selves and unconsciously produced great poetry.
This is tantamount to saying that two individuals who are not geniuses and who consciously and deliberately set out to write nonsense can accidentally write great poetry. But a book, a picture, a poem or a piece of sculpture is a description. What were the joint authors of “The Darkening Ecliptic” endeavouring to describe? On their own evidence they weren’t trying to describe anything. They were just lumping words and phrases higgledy-piggledy together. No doubt these words and phrases conjured up associations for the editors of “Angry Penguins”; associations that they don’t have for other people, and which they certainly didn’t have for the two ingenious hoaxers.
In the same way, “Singapore” may have once had scarcely any associations, for most Australians; now it has a lot, and it will always have a host of associations for me, because I happened once to live there in an impressionable literary adolescence. In short, the one word “Singapore” might sing like a lovely poem to some people and to others have sad and even dreadful associations. But the word itself isn’t these associations; it is only the symbol for them. It is neither a dirge nor a poem, but a place-name, like any other place-name.
So it was of their associations the editors were talking when they said that they were “immediately impressed that here was a poet of tremendous power, working through a disciplined and restrained kind of statement into the deepest wells of human experience.”
As a description of what had actually happened in the manufacture of these nonsense verses, this must be about the most unconsciously comic utterance in the history of literary criticism. The endeavor of the artist is to divest himself of his associations and see his subject stark. An artist who had pleasant associations around eyes but unpleasant ones around noses could hardly expect to become much of a portrait-painter. The editors of “Angry Penguins” are so completely the victims of the fashionable associations of the moment that they made complete fools of themselves when confronted by a piece of deliberately-confected bunkum. If they would admit that they would know something about themselves, and that is a most necessary first step in the development of artists, critics or editors.