The revelation that the blogger AJ Chesswas is the invention of a couple of decadent IT geeks, and not the fair dinkum, no bullshit Taranaki farmer he claimed to be, has stirred a bit of debate on the Kiwi blogosphere about the ethics of hoaxing. Chesswas' creators claim he was designed to explore the parameters of a certain worldview, and expose some of its absurdities; his erstwhile polemical opponents complain that their time has been wasted. I don't want to discuss the specifics of the Chesswas case - I found the bloke boring even before he was exposed as fictional - but I do find the whole subject of literary hoaxing fascinating. I thought I'd post about a couple of famous hoaxes from Australia, a place which seems to be a stronghold of the genre.
The first case I want to mention is that of Ern Malley, the poet invented in 1943 by James McAuley and Harold Stewart, two soldiers intent on discrediting Australian literature's fledgling modernist movement. These angry young men wrote sixteen poems in a day, opening books at random, bouncing lines off each other, free associating, and borrowing from their own writings to create what they considered to be a mish mash typical of the writing published in Angry Penguins, the Adelaide-based torchbearer for modernist art and literary trends like surrealism, Dadaism and Cubism. McAuley and Stewart wanted to ridicule the strange imagery, dislocated sentences, fascination with modernity, and revolutionary politics which they associated with Penguins and with modernism in general. Here is an excerpt from the Ern Malley poem 'Culture as Exhibit':
“Swamps, marshes, borrow-pits and other
Areas of stagnant water serve
As breeding-grounds ...” Now
Have I found you, my Anopheles!
(There is a meaning for the circumspect)
Come, we will dance sedate quadrilles,
A pallid polka or a yelping shimmy
Over these sunken sodden breeding-grounds!
We will be wraiths and wreaths of tissue-paper
To clog the Town Council in their plans.
Culture forsooth! Albert, get my gun.
The Malley poems were fired off to Penguins along with a letter from Malley's sister lamenting her brother's untimely demise from Graves' disease in a working class suburb of Melbourne. When Penguins published Malley's oeuvre and lauded him as a 'great Australain poet', the two hoaxers revealed themselves, and Penguins and Australian modernism were ridiculed in national newspapers. The hoaxers' conservatism (political, as much as literary) would dominate Austalian letters for two decades, as editors and aspiring writers drawn to the experiments of modernism were cowed by the mockery that had killed Angry Penguins.
Eventually, though, the Malley poems were excavated by a gang of feisty young Aussie neo-Modernists, the so-called 'generation of '68', who thought them wonderful. Slowly, this revisionist view became literary orthodoxy, and the Ern Malley poems are now more admired and anthologised than anything else produced by the hoaxers. I certainly think there is a great deal of truth in the argument that McAuley and Stewart were able to escape the hidebound conventions of their conservative aesthetics and worldview and produce some memorable (if occasionally slightly silly) poetry by donning the Ern Malley disguise.
The second literary hoax I want to consider was published under the name of Helen Demidenko. Demidenko, whose real name was Darville, was an ambitious compulsive liar who wrote a novel called The Hand that Signed the Paper about the Ukrainian role in the Jewish Holocaust. Darville, who had no Ukrainian heritage, pretended to be a descendant of a participant in this slaughter recounting more-or-less factual details in the blood-splattered prose she had cut and pasted from numerous contemporary novels and short stories.
Many people detected anti-Semitism in The Hand that Signed the Paper, because Demidenko seemed to justify atrocities by pointing to the supposed oppression of Ukrainians by Jews during the centuries preceding the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. When the book won a major literary prize tension between the Jewish and Ukrainian communities in Australia rose to dangerous levels. Throughout the controversy, Demidenko's usurpation of Ukrainian identity was a key factor in the defences which were mounted on her behalf by Ukrainians and by friendly literary critics. She was, they argued, to be praised for confronting her past courageously. Outrage came from many quarters when a few simple inquiries by a journalist revealed that Demidenko had no Ukrainian background, and that her wearing of national dress for photoshoots and the long winded family histories given to interviewers were just parts of an elaborate con.
Incredibly, though, a few literary critics and academics stood by Demidenko, arguing that the whole notion of an author is a fiction, that language is autonomous and its meaning arbitrary, and so on ad nauseum. (One recalls Derrida's defence of the literary scholar Paul de Man after he was posthumously 'outed' as the author of a number of anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi newspaper articles.) The thing that made the response of the pro-Demidenko lit critics and academics so sickening to me was the fact that few of them were Jewish and none, so far as I know, was Ukrainian, yet they felt themselves wholly equipped to pass judgement on a book which represented an attack of virtually physical force on both communities.
To me, the persona of Helen Demidenko is an essential part of every sentence of The Hand that Signed the Paper. To consider the book without considering the falsity of Demidenko's claims - about herself, and about the history of Ukraianian-Jewish relations - is pointless. It seems to me that the book fails because of the falsity of these claims. I don't think I'm alone in holding this opinion - The Hand that Signed the Paper is well on its way to being a forgotten book today. The Ern Malley poems, by contrast, seem to grow more and more popular - Peter Carey's recent novel My Life As A Fake is just the latest sign of the fascination the figure of Malley continues to evoke inside and outside Australia. The Hand that Signed the Paper is already out of print, but Ern Malley's poems can be found in any good Australian bookshop.
How do we account for Malley's longevity? Why has his work survived the unmasking of his creators by sixty-three years? We might answer 'Because his poems are so good' or 'Because McAuley and Stewart allowed themselves to write well', but this would be begging the question. Why do we find the Malley oeuvre so compelling, when the hapless Helen Demidenko is interesting for historical reasons only? Why were McAuley and Stewart able to unlock such creativity when they wrote the Malley poems? The Malley hoax was a polemical exercise - an unusual way of making a heartfelt argument against modernism and in favour of a conservative style of writing and a conservative view of the world. The same argumet is made in a much more naked way in many of the 'serious' poems of McAuley and Stewart.
Polemic is a rough and ready style of argument which relies on a peculiar mixture of caricature and logic. In a great polemic, like EP Thompson's The Peculiarities of the English, Lenin's Left-wing Communism, or Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading a balance is struck between these two elements. The target of a good polemic might be subject to all sorts of witty rhetorical attacks, but if his or her arguments are not given a reasonably fair treatment he or she can expect to emerge unscathed from the attack. Lenin's polemic can be devastating, because the force of his logic makes us understand the reason for his sometimes-extravgant caricatures and imprecations. We come to feel his frustration and anger at the shortcomings of his opponents. We empathise with his feelings because he has brought us close to his opponent's positions and allowed us to see their shortcomings.
Of course, there is a risk attached to this procedure: by laying out his opponent's arguments and showing us the reasons for them - the worldview expressed in them - Lenin runs the risk of losing us to his opponents. We might decide we like the formulations of the 'renegade Kautsky' or the 'infantile left-wing communists'. When researching the history of the British left in the 1920s and 30s, I was amazed by the number of people - John Maynard Keynes and Bertrand Russell are prominent examples - who were persuaded of the merits of social democracy by Lenin's attacks on the creed in polemics with social democrats like Kautsky. Equally, many of the 'ultra-leftists' Lenin sought to counter in polemics like Left-wing communism had their faith bolstered by the book.
I think that the Ern Malley hoax can be considered a polemic which boomeranged on its authors, an attack on modernism that has ended up winning its readers to modernism. McAuley and Stewart achieved what was, for them, a dangerous level of empathy with their target. Trying to ridicule the style and worldview of mid-century literary modernism, they succeeded in giving that style and worldview unforgettably vivid expression:
Where I have lived
The bed-bug sleeps in the seam, the cockroach
Inhabits the crack and the careful spider
Spins his aphorisms in the comer.
I have heard them shout in the streets
The chiliasms of the Socialist Reich
And in the magazines I have read
The Popular Front-to-Back.
But where I have lived
Spain weeps in the gutters of Footscray
Guernica is the ticking of the clock
The nightmare has become real, not as belief
But in the scrub-typhus of Mubo.
Can we go so far as to say that McAuley and Stewart fell in love with their creation, in the same way that Milton fell in love with Satan when he was writing Paradise Lost? Is McAuley and Stewart's post-Malley work so disappointing for the same reason Paradise Regained is so disappointing when set beside its predecessor?
It can be said without exaggeration that Ern Malley's poems are much better than the 'authetic' work that Angry Penguins published. McAuley and Stewart may have lost their argument with modernism, but their loss is our gain. The same cannot be said of The Hand that Signed the Paper. Helen Demidenko destroyed Helen Darville's reputation and put paid to her chances of a literary career, and she offers no compensatory rewards to the rest of us. Her book produced only bitterness and a sense of betrayal in Australia's Ukranian and Jewish communities. Demidenko's novel fails because it nowhere exhibits the profound imaginative empathy of the Ern Malley poems. The Hand that Signed the Paper never gets inside the heads of its targets. It is a pastiche full of cliched characters and unpleasant national and ethnic stereotypes. Caricature wins out over empathy, and the reader loses out. Darville may be a fantasist but she lacks an imagination.