Note: Another of my scanned essays turned in for my unit in Contemporary Australian Literature at CQU, Australia, Semester 1, 2007.
Topic Question Being Addressed: “Myths and legends tell us something about ourselves that we might not be prepared to say straight-faced. And yet, if Benedict Anderson is right in suggesting that our sense of any community is only ever imagined, a contemporary re-imagining of Australian myths and legends is not only an improbable reworking of the past, it is also a rnis-recognition of the ways in which identity functions.” Discuss with reference to My Life as a Fake and one other text.
One of the more fascinating theses to come out of relatively recent modernist history studies is that proposed by Benedict Anderson (1983) as he considers the rise of global ‘nationa1ism’. The by-product of the Industrial Revolution, with its emphasis on the technological and technique, combined with the rise of secularity, and the universal establishment and dissemination of “print-capitalism”, nationalism arose as an articulation of a more mechanistic consciousness. A nation “is imagined,” Anderson argues, “because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” (1) This image is a composite of the vernacular fused with – more national legends and myths that together form an approximation of objective identity on a par, even exceeding at times, the power of subjectivity. In addition, says Anderson, a nation is not only “imagined”, it is imagined as a community because “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.” (2) Of more specific literary interest, Anderson sees the novel as having a central role in the formation of that imagined national affinity, being a principle vehicle for the re-telling and reiteration of the image boundary, and thus helping vested interests reinforce the manufactured mantras of Mammon.
In considering Benedict Anderson’s notion of “imagined communities”, I am reawakened to Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (3) wherein the founder of psychoanalysis ponders the conflicts that define and limit humans — Ego and object(including the Other), pleasure and pain, Eros and the death drive — and he concluded that civilization was in crisis because the individual would never be able to sufficiently sublimate his/her primal instincts (id) for the super-egotistical benefit of the community. There is friction at the boundaries of self and others from the very start. This theme is picked up and elaborated on, many years later, by Erich Fromm in his like-minded, though less pessimistic, tome, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (4) which tends to ‘take the side’ of the individual, wherein lies love (Eros) and beauty (sublimation) and freedom (Ego) up against the structural colossus of civilization, and argues that when these basic subjective boundary markers are breached a death drive, or Thanatos, is stimulated to end the frustration. This leads to aggression, which leads to the transgression of borders and boundaries: Wars and wife-beating, irony and dialectics, history wars and assorted other sordid re-imaginings. Freud saw the only hope for humankind being the willing suspension of ego border security that occurs in the act of love, but which he believed would be ultimately unable to cope with Thanatos. Fromm agreed with Freud on the fate of love, but believed it would lead to a form of non-sexual necrophilia, or the love of dead things, and exemplified by the precision and lethality of modem military-industrial nexus, widening technology worship, and the objectification collateralization of people and the environment,(5) all of which we see an abundance of today.
All of this is to say that Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities”, like Edward Said’s “imagined geographies”, strictly-speaking, are nothing new under the sun. The battle of structures versus freedoms has been with us ever, from Heraclitus (6) through Derrida,(7) from Aristotle through Kristeva,(8) in the yin and yang of Kant and Hegel, and in the ‘cant and haggling over colonial Darwinism and post-colonial relativism. As far as literature goes, texts have always’ traditionally been looked at as being either of didactic value or entertainments. But it’s highly questionable whether in the paradigm-shifting (9) that comprises postmodernist perceptions such expressions as ‘didacticism’ even have meaning any more. Who reads fiction for any form of certitude about the human condition anymore? I’d argue: Very few. Who reads fiction for its strategies and agendas? Academics mostly. Indeed, one might ask: who reads short fiction at all any more’?(10) Thus, it is questionable if someone as literate and savvy as Peter Carey is, in actuality, “re-imagining Australian myths and legends” in any didactic way-that is, he does not seem to be out to a]j’irm any underlying moral or cultural values, although he is certainly interested in Australian iconography. But icons aren’t myths any more than pop stars are poets. So what is Carey up to?
My Life as a Fake is a re-telling of the Ern Malley hoax of 1944,(11) in which, Max Harris, the editor of Angry Penguins, a modernist literary magazine, was suckered into believing he had miraculously come into the great work of a prematurely demised visionary poet named Ern Malley. The magazine had been contacted by the dead poet’s “sister” Ethel, who had supposedly come across the work whilst cleaning out her brother’s belongings. Reading over the manuscript, titled ‘The Darkening Ecliptic’, Harris was stunned by the beauty and ring of truth the poems seemed to carry in their lively Surrealist lines. So Harris, along with his Melbourne elitist mates, spread the word of the discovery and devoted a whole issue to their discovery, including the collected poems and biographical sketch supplied by “Ethe1″. While word spread in the appropriate literary circles, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, the two unknown Sydney poets who despised modernism, leaked word to newspapers that Ern Malley was a hoax. As they sometimes do, this hoax generated bizarre sideshow activity — the magazine was closed down by police not on charges like criminal naiveté, but because the Malley poems contained pornographic references. While defending against the porn charges, Harris also took the unusual tack of defending the Malley collection as genuine high art and genius — despite the false credential. ‘The myth is sometimes greater than its creator,” said Harris. (12) And the tide actually turned, with mainstream modernist publications championing the false poetry, including New York poet John Ashbeny, who reportedly told his MFA students regarding the Ern Malley hoax, “[G]enuineness in literature may not depend on authorial sincerity, and our ideas about good and bad, real and fake, are, or ought to be, in flux.(13)
Noted literary critic Kenneth Ruthven further recast Em Malley, and the notion of authorial authenticity, into a postmodemist play of relativities that brings the Work closer to the project that Anderson describes in a slightly different context. Because in the context of what constitutes the ‘genuine’ in the realmof the “imagined community” wlierein the text itself has any purpose anyway, it is all relative. Ruthven does a fme job stunming this problem up:
Two intellectual developments in the final decades of the twentieth century made it possible to reconsider the relationship between ‘genuine’ and ‘fake’ literature. The more important was post-structuralist critical theory, which seriously challenged commonsense assumptions about such key components in traditional literary studies as authorship, originality, authenticity and value. And the other was the continuing anatomy of what Jean-Francois Lyotard labeled in 1979 ‘the postmodem condition’, which enables us to see literary forgeries as in some ways normalized by the spuriosities of everyday life. Together they provide the tools with which to critique traditional strategies for concealing the scandal of literature as a cognitive mode. And by doing so they reveal how the ritual scapegoating of those caught perpetrating literary forgeries distracts attention from the spuriosity of literature itself. (14)
The key here is Ruthven’s reference to “the scandal of literature as a cognitive mode.” Again, simply put, there is nothing didactic in literature, per se, according to postmodemist thinking, but a reiteration of the boundaries.
And a reading of My Life as a Fake along these lines yields a somewhat different idea of what Carey is doing with the hoax than one might pre-suppose. Indeed, it is possible to see Carey’s entire oeuvre, often critically described as a re-imagining of Australian myths and legends, as something else altogether. Carey moves the setting of the story from Melbourne to Malaysia, the original hoax poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, are combined in the body of Christopher Chubb, a down-and-out expatriate, and the diminutive Ern Malley is replaced with Bob McCorkle, a hulking genius in the flesh. The ‘fish’, editor Max Harris, is replaced with David Weiss. The narrator is an Englishwoman named Sarah Wode-Douglass, who actually has the Esther role, which is to pass on the story to her editor back in London, but, here, Sarah is Esther with steroidized intelligence. While there are plenty of twists and subplots, including a marvelous portrait of the hopeless inauthenticity of bohemian expatriate life, for the most part Carey keeps the situation the same: Getting the hoax (re)published in a willing and unsuspecting remote publication.
It’s safe to say most contemporary writers don’t write for critics, and My Life as a Fake certainly shows no signs of having been cobbled together to pass the muster of Benedict Anderson and his notion of imagined communities. However, it is clear that Carey is tickling out the consequences of the hoaxes and of the false running amok. In bringing Em Malley to literal life through Bob McCorkle, Carey seems intent on playing with the idea of creations getting out of the control of their creator. In this sense, McCorkle is the embodiment of all hoaxes and all that is false. But this is not a cautionary tale; there is nothing didactic about the story, though there are epiphanies and denouements galore. What it is is farce masquerading as didacticism. By re-setting the Australian hoax to Malaysia, and passing it on through Sarah to ‘the poms’, Carey is tweaking both the Australian literary establishment that is trying to pin his project down to a “re-imagining of Australian legends and myths” and, just for the fun of it, tweaking the British literary establishment (seen crumbling, if we view Sarah’s magazine, The Modern Review, as being desperate enough to buy the hoax in an effort to keep the publication afloat-itself a statement on the current state of affairs in English literature). In short, one reading of My Life as a Fake is to pull a certain readership into believing he is re-telling an Australian legend in order to update and resolve questions he has about his own identity within the community of Australians, while all the while he is having one over on those very same lot. My Life as a Fake, for all its many moments of poignancy, is not a re-imagining akin to, say, E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, and Bob McCorkle is a lot closer to a Mel Brooks’ Frankenstein than the one conjured up by Mary Wollstonecraft. And that’s entertainment.
In a way, Peter Carey has been such a trickster throughout his literary career. lf you were to .consider the themes of almost all his novels — for example, Bliss, or Jack Maggs, or The True History of the Kelly Gang, or Oscar and Lucinda — you could be tricked into believing that the focus of his writing is thematic. Bliss has themes of corporate decadence and, if you read Honey Barbara as Aborigine, the prostitutionalization of native culture. Jack Maggs is a kind of retracing of the transportation questions. True History would re-imagine the convict/bushranger/colonial rebel up against imperialist sadists. Oscar and Lucinda would examine missionaries and their role in the interior colonization of terra nullius. But in each case, Carey constructs a framework that could, if he so chose, be a lecture hall for a powerpoint slide into invasion shame, the genocide, and the unfinished business of reconciliation. He does not so choose: Instead each novel is a kind of surreal and, at times, giddy romp into character-driven, plot-twisted fabulism. There are, no doubt, critics who hold it against Carey that he has expatriated to America and writes from foreign turf about things so close to home and heart, as though one loses legitimacy in the distance. It’s not something Ernest Hemingway ever had to worry about, and seems peculiarly Australian. Interestingly enough, another ordinary Australian expatriate fan of Carey wrote, on his blog, one of the best observations I have seen regarding Carey’s expatriation:
Many Australians get sick of waiting for their country to grow up and leave home. So, instead, some of these Australians just grow up and leave home themselves. I would suggest that Peter Carey is one who did that. He lives in New York and he writes about Australia. One of his reasons for this seems to me obvious: writing about Australia wouldbe easier (perhaps even just possible) when not living within it. This doesn’t mean that anything written about this country from beyond its shores is any less Authentic for it. I think it can be less Authentic, namely when it gets hopelessly nostalgic and idealized beyond recognition. But equally (and I think this is the case with Peter Carey’s writing), it can be more Authentic. (15)
Of course, the question of authenticity leads back to Carey’s presumed place in the imagined community (its pantheon, no less) that he chooses to distance himself from.
But Carey seems content to work with the dark, the grotesque, the absurd, layered ironies, and rich comedy. He is, in short, and with respect to any kind of imaginedcommunity, a trickster and hoaxer in his own right. This seems like a reasonable alternative to a tortured, self-reflexive consciousness in writing that you sometimes see in the stay-at-home Malouf and which seemed, at times, to eat alive Patrick White’s ‘soul’. He is an antic rather than a melancholy Hamlet, still hoisting deserving retards on their own petards, but outside the claustrophobic confines of the down under trap. One might even go so far as to say that Carey is the quintessential hoaxer, the liar with a thousand `faces, which might be the most honest career one could follow in the postmodem world. Because if nationalism realized through blind participation is as ultimately harmful as Anderson suggests, with Freudian ego borders melting not into raptures of selfless love but into the dehumanized clockwork of collective fantasies we no longer control, then even fictions intent on consciously exposing the trappings of imagined communities and civilization are themselves reinforcing the notion that that is also the locus of freedom and individuality. To survive, some measure of subversion is always necessary, and it may be that Carey is such a Fool. As Lewis Hyde (1983) has it,
Like trickster, the clown and the fool stir things up; they overturn the established order. The clown crashes through the boundaries of the stage and rushes and somersaults through the audience, bringing the periphery, at least for the moment, to the center and turning convention on its head. (16)
It may even be an artist’s duty, in service to humankind, to provide such ‘diversions’ and alternate ways of seeing,–‘crashing through the boundaries’ as a kind of species-wide’ survival mechanism, as Freud, Jung and some anthropologists would have it. If this is so, then Carey certainly excels at clownsmanship, which is not necessarily sign of ‘shallowness but of profundity.(17)
There’s another way of looking at Carey’s work as well, though. Maybe he’s not so much a hoaxer/trickster, as much as he is a non-sexual necrophiliac. If the byproducts of the shift a postmodernist paradigm includes the deadening of humanism, and there’severy indication that it has, then themes such as the corruption of Aboriginal culture, the politics of transportation, the mess the missionaries made, and the lessons of colonization are all cadaver themes. When, for example, Keith Windschuttle recently took to task ‘left-wing’ historians for the shoddiness of their work with documentary evidence regarding the Aboriginal confrontation with White Europeans, especially on the question of genocide, his thesis didn’t rescue the previously imagined communal history, as told by Whites to themselves, it merely threw the whole discussion into a muddle of relativism. Postmodemism, the machine, won. So, in a rather macabre sense, Carey may be buggering a dead hobbyhorse.
But I prefer to View Carey’s work as that of a kind of transitional clown, like Abbie Hoffman. He was a Yippie (18) in the 1960s, who, with his buddies, once visited the New York Stock exchange and rained dollar bills down on the brokers below, disrupting the market as brokers scrambled for the cash. Hoffman also actually convinced generals in the Pentagon that he had the power to levitate the building and would do so if the Viet Nam war were not ended. He also ran a pig for president in 1968. (19) These comically subversive activities had the effect of amplifying the crisis of ‘nation’, of helping to wake people up from their doglike slumbers, of assisting people in ‘turning on and tuning out’ (20) the dreamtime of the machine. Peter Carey is no Yippie, but his fiction is anonymously subversive, essentially telling readers without ideologizing, to ‘feed your head’. It’s doubtful, as Joseph Pearson previously suggested, if Carey would be allowed such subversive space, if he called Australia home.
But there’s yet another way of looking at the work of Carey that is neither historical nor political, but simply, but most meaningfully, aesthetic. Long before Anderson, Freud described a world in which subjects live in conflict with objects. There are boundaries we need but don’t understand. While we develop defenses to ward off the intrusion of others, we spend time in our minds being free. Recently, this idea was expanded upon in a New Scientist magazine article on quantum physics, which suggested that, for the first time, we might have empirical proof that reality itself is an illusion. But that reality is not approachable through collective fantasy, although myth suggests, in itself, that common reality is insufficient as a means to understanding phenomenological experience. Instead, imagine waking up one morning and discovering that everything had turned into molecules, that there was no definition of any form, that looking at yourself meant only an awareness of your own molecular structure within a larger proximal field, and that you were literally an extension of all that was around you and that it was an extension of ‘you’. The French philosopher Merleau-Ponty describes this condition:
The visible world and the world of my motor projects are each total parts of the same Being. ..[V]ision happens among, or is caught in, things. _ .Since things and my body are made of the same stuff, vision must somehow take place in them; their manifest visibility must be repeated in the body by a secret visibility. (21)
If there is any beauty in the postmodernist transformation, it is just such an aesthetic vision that reclaims the world for the subject, while at the same time melting away the boundaries between self and others in a condition that transcends otherness and sublimates subjective isolation.
In Culture and Imperialism (1993) Edward Said describes the slippery slope that constitutes the boundary between the future and the past — a demarcation we call the present, but which we “know” only through the vacillations of textuality and the exigencies of interpretation. But the question is whose ‘text and which interpretation? “How we formulate or represent the past shapes our understanding and views of the present,” he writes.(22) And as the toils and boils of postmodernism have shown us, that understanding is never more than proximal and relative, and dependent on who controls the apparatus of textuality at any point in time. Long ago for Peter Carey, in his early short fiction and maybe through Bliss, he was a champion of the underdogmatism that barked warnings at the artificial gates of nationalism and that deeper illusion, humanism But, in the vernacular of proximal reality, Carey’s work now seems to say, ‘Been there, done that.’
Such is life. And art.
1. Benedict Anderson (1983), Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism,
London: Verso, p.6.
2. ibid., and the quote continues: “Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two
centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited
3. Sigmund Freud (1961), Civilization and Its Discontents, translated by James Strachey, New York:
4. Erich Fromm (1973), The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, New York: Holt.
5. Ibid., see especially the section on “The Connection Between Necrophilia and the Worship of
Technique,” pages 380-398. And later, on page 435: ‘With the increasing production and division of labor,
the formation of a large surplus, and the building of states with hierarchies and elites’, he wrote, ‘large-scale
human destructiveness and cruelty came into existence and grew as civilization and the role of power grew‘.
6. ‘We cannot step into the same river twice.’
7. ‘We cannot step into the same river once.’
8. ‘Semiotics? I’m not Saussure’
9. As opposed to a kind of art movement we will eventually mature out of. Postmodernism is often seen as a
destructive and irrational force leading to the dreaded moral relativism some feel, but actually the greatest
beneficiary of the p-shift has been the all-too-rational science and technology ‘communities.’
10. Fiction magazines are dying by the month. The Atlantic Monthbf, which has given first shots to some of
fictions best writers for more than 150 years, including Mark Twain, Henry James and, more recently,
Annie Prouxl, has said it will no longer publish fiction in its pages, which is a shocking development.
11. A wonderfully thorough review of the hoax, including radio interviews with the main ‘characters’
involved, a wide-ranging analysis, and the complete Em Malley poems, can be accesses at Jacket
magazine ’s website: http:/jacketmagazinecom/l 7/index.shtml
12. Michael Heyward (1993), The Ern Malley Afair, London: Faber & Faber, p. l 52.
13. David Lehman (1998), “The Em Malley Poetry Hoax–Introduction”, Jacket Magazine, Number 17,
January 1998, accessed on line at http:/dacketmagazinecom/l7/em-dl.html on June ll, 2007.
14. K. K. Ruthven (2001), Faking Literature, Cambridge, Cambridge Press, p. 63, accessed on line at
http:/Hacketmagazinecom/l7/herron.html#f4 on June l 1, 2007.
15. Joseph Pearson, “Peter Carey”, blog entry at http://www.make-believe.org/in-other-words/post/peter-
carey accessed on June 7, 2007.
16. Lewis Hyde (1998), Trickster Makes This World: Mischief Myth, and Art, New York: North Point Press, p. 170.
17. Nietzsche once said of Shakespeare: “I know no more heart-rending reading than Shakespeare: what a
man must have suffered to find it so very necessary to be a buffoon.” Ecce Homo (1967), translated and
edited by Walter Kaufmann, New York: Vintage, p. l 14.
18. Youth International Party-basically, activist (as opposed to passivist) hippies who were essentially
comical anarchists in the service of preserving democracy.
19. For a fuller picture, see my article at http://www.praguepost.com/P02/Qpgplgp/?id=28959&a=3
20. Essentially, psychedelic 60s attempted to reverse the flow of nationalistic vampirism.
21. Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1964), The Primacy of Perception: And Other Essays on A
Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History and Politics, Chicago: Northwestem
University Press, p 162-164.
22. Edward W. Said (1993), Culture and Imperialism, New York:Vintage, p.4.
Auerbach, Erich (1953), Mimesis, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Anderson, Benedict (1983), Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and
Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso.
Carey, Peter (1981) Bliss, London: Faber and Faber.
(1988) Oscar and Lucinda, London: Faber and Faber.
(1997) Jack Maggs, London: Faber and Faber.
(2001) True History of the Kelly Gang: Faber and Faber.
(2003) My Life as a Fake: Faber and Faber.
Chown, Marcus (2007), “Forever Quantiun,” in New Scientist, 17 March 2007, pp. 36-39
Freud, Sigmund (1961), Civilization and Its Discontents, translated by James Strachey,
New York: Norton.
Fromm, Erich (1973), The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, New York: Holt.
Gaile, Andreas (2005), Perspectives on the Fiction of Peter Carey.
Heyward, Michael (1993), The Ern Malley Affair, London: Faber & Faber.
Hyde, Lewis (1998), Trickster Makes This World: Mischici Myth, and Art, New York:
North Point Press.
Lehman, David (1998), “The Em Malley Poetry Hoax-Introduction”, Jacket Magazine,
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1967), Ecce Homo, trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann, New York:
Pearson, Joseph (2007), “Peter Carey”, blog entry at http://www.make-be1ieve.org/in-
other-words/post/peter-carey accessed on June 7, 2007.
Ruthven, K. K. (2001), Faking Literature, Cambridge, Cambridge Press
Said, Edward W. (1993), Culture and Imperialism, New York: Vintage.