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Dogs in the Graveyard

Part two

Cassandra Pybus

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That hideous murder was in the public domain, so in one respect any writer was free to cannibalise the Brook's story. The same cannot be said for those whose stories are inextricably entwined in a writer's own life. The moral issues associated with cannibalising the lives of one's nearest and dearest are infinitely more ticklish, I discovered when I attempted to write about the Vietnam war, as a way of exploring a disturbing irony which finds me, anti-war activist, married to a Vietnam Veteran for whom the experience has been so traumatic that it is the one thing he will not share with me.

My interest in the Vietnam War had been rekindled a few years ago when I stumbled upon a file of transcripts of the prosecutions of draft resisters, some of whom were my friends, in the Quadrantarchives It made me very angry and it drove me back to the most brilliant book to come out of that terrible war, Michael Herr's, Dispatches,which exposed the vileness of its sanctioned savagery and its awful hypocrisy. Herr's real genius was to take readers into the pity and terror of boys whose lives had been fractured irrevocably by the decision to send them into horrors of Vietnam; boys full of bravado and bullshit, brutalised and brutalising, facing unpredictable death and scared out of their wits. I remembered having seen these young men in America after the war, when I was researching my PhD. On various campuses, as well as in the streets of the cities, maimed and ruined men with a dark bitterness no GI Bill could erase. These many years later I found I wanted to write about it.

In particular I want to write about the astounding revelation in 1985 that the man I was about to marry had been on active service in Vietnam. One night, in a slip of the tongue loosened by wine and sexual languor, he had revealed this to me. He never repeated it. After years of my cajoling this memory remains secured in a compartment of Michael's soul that he has locked against me. Desperate to understand, I was forced into the subterfuge of researching his experiences in the archives of the War Memorial and in military documents requested through FOI. What I learned from my clandestine research was transmuted into what I thought was a really good piece of writing. Then I gave it to Michael to read. What followed was a painful series of negotiations about what I would be permitted to say. As far as he was concerned that past was over and he was determined it be left that way. My response was to argue the past was never over, that it is out of the past we remake our future. It did me no good. Nor did the tears and histrionics as I asserted my claim that his life and his scarred memory was now my life as well. In the end he conceded that I could say something. Very little. Nearly all of what I had written was dragged into the trash. Self-censorship is a cruel thing for an autobiographer. Necessary though. It was always going to be Michael's call. How could it be otherwise?

What then do these ethical dilemmas imply for the hot pursuit of the recently dead known as biography? The voyeuristic business of hunting around in dark corners of a dead person's life, reading their private diaries and personal correspondence, talking to disaffected friends and clandestine lovers; spending thousands of hours in the archives in delicious anticipation of the hitherto unseen clue, is an activity chockablock with moral dilemmas, all the more troublesome for the writer since publishers regard biography as gold-plated. The public appetite seems inexhaustible.

According to Freud "Anyone who writes biograpy is committed to lies concealments, hypocrisy, flattery and even to hiding his own lack of understanding, for biographical truth does not exist and if it did we could not use it." The great man penned these dismissive words in his "Autobigraphical Study", just before he destroyed his personal papers in a pre-emptive strike against any biographical enterprise in his name. Neither his words of warning nor his symbolic auto da fe proved any real deterrent against those who sought to write the Life of Sigmund Freud,for the very good reason that a desire for truth about a person is not what powers the interest in biography. Rather the appetite for biography is about a desire to vicariously experience lives more various, more excessive, more creative, more damaged, more fulfilling than one's own.

Gore Vidal, no admirer of Freud, takes a similarly dim view of biographers, "the hacks of academe" as he contemptuously calls them, reserving for literary biographers his most lofty scorn. In a scarifying essay in The New York Review of Booksa decade ago, Vidal warned that the writer as the performing self had reached the absurdity where the self was threatening to become the sole artefact – to be written about by unimaginative hacks who tended to erase in the process whatever the subject may have written. And there was plenty of academic and journalistic lowlife slavering to write biographies, Vidal pointed out, so long as the writer supplied the raw material: "a gaudy descent into drink, drugs, sex, and terminal name-dropping." In this case the Great Gore's outrage was triggered by a biography of his old friend Tennessee Williams. Yet it has always been thus in America. I am reminded of Baudelaire's disgust at the posthumous memoir of Edgar Allen Poe: "Is there no ordinance in America to keep the dogs out of the cemeteries?"

In her abrasive introduction to The Silent Women Janet Malcolm takes a similar tack to Vidal, without his contemptuous disapproval. Her unflattering definition renders biography as the medium through which the secrets of the dead are taken from them and dumped into full view for the sole purpose of titillating a voracious public; a voyeuristic collusion between the writer and the reader, "tiptoeing down the corridor together to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole". While the scholarly apparatus of footnotes and archival references may legitimise this voyeurism and take it out of the realm of the tawdry, at its core biography remains tawdry, Malcolm would have us understand, before she proceeds to tantalise the voyeur in us with her examination of the entrails of the tragic Sylvia Plath-Ted Hughes marriage.

Malcolm is in agreement with Baudelaire about the dogs in the graveyard, the difference being that she relishes the absence of legal restraint which can permit this most grisly of exhumation. Compelling though her prose can be, I am not prepared to go all the way with Malcolm on this. Sure, biographers are cannibals and voyeurs. All writers are these things, yet they are much more. And while there is no such thing as biographical truth, it has to be said that the close examination of a life can illuminate much about the creative process, or social mores, or the mechanics of power. Our culture has been enriched by such biographies. Equally, I could never make a case for biography as a high art form, as Drusilla Modjeska seemed able to do when she and I shared a recent panel discussion on the subject. I align myself with Ian Hamilton, biographer of Robert Lowell, and the man who could be said to have ruined the biography game for the rest of the punters with his abortive biography of the still-living and highly litigious J D Salinger.

Unlike Malcolm, who sees herself as one of the graveyard dogs, a carrion feeder pawing over decomposing remains to satisfy public curiosity, Hamilton allows himself moral qualms about his purpose as a biographer. Speaking of his misgivings, he owns to a distaste for the "necessary element of sleaze…wounds reopened, emotions guessed at or played with, so I could tell my tale". Such are his qualms about those who might be pained or damaged in the process of extracting his tale, Hamilton has ruefully decided that he will probably not venture down the path of biography again. Before his bruising legal battle with Salinger, which finally cured him of a lifelong infatuation with the author of Catcher in the Rye,Hamilton had found that even writing an authorisedbiography of the shamelessly self-exposing Robert Lowell had bruising unforseen consequences for the biographer, not to mention Lowell's various wives and friends.

I understand exactly the misgivings that Hamilton confesses in this regard. I also appreciate the dilemma he faced when these misgivings began to kick in. He had several years of intensive research and travel, a publishers advance and financial assistance expended, a contract to fulfil and publishers expectations to meet; all potent considerations to be weighed in the balance against a mounting distaste for "the necessary element of sleaze". As Hamilton found, it is damn near impossible for a writer to pull-out when one has already waded into the middle of the biographical swamp.

Almost two years into the research for a book on the poet and polemicist, James McAuley, I found myself confronting similar misgivings to those of Hamilton as it became uncomfortably clear to me that this book was going to be more problematic than I had anticipated. I was determined not to engage in a process of peeping through the keyhole for glimpses of his intimate life, and had proposed a political biography of the public man. However, the deeper I waded into research about his public life the more I became aware that the stance of public man had its genesis in the profoundly troubled inner life of the private man.

I had already approached McAuley's widow seeking access to his New Guinea diaries, which I knew had been read by several previous researchers. It was at least a year before I had a response to say that none of McAuley's personal papers would be available to me, nor to any other researcher. Last year they were deposited in the Mitchell Library under a ten year embargo. At a writer's festival in 1998 I was informed by McAuley's literary agent that the family did not look favourably on the idea of my writing a book about their husband and father. As I explained in a letter to Michael McAuley – to which I had no reply – my problem was that I had expended over eighty thousand dollars of an Australian Research Council grant and I doubted that the ARC would accept my failure to produce the proposed book on the grounds that the McAuley family did not wish it. A member of the ARC Humanities panel confirmed that point for me, expressing some surprise that the view of the family should come into consideration in a scholarly political biography of a public man who died a quarter of a century past.

I pressed on with the task, determined to get it completed as quickly as possible so I could transfer my literary energy and curiosity to a less troublesome subject. Throughout the process I presented papers to a wide variety of audiences – predominantly academic – in Australia, as well as the US, Canada and Europe. In every case the feedback was consistent in pushing me to investigate the strong undercurrent of sexual anxiety which appeared to feed McAuley's ideology, as well as his poetry. I knew they were right about this; it was an insistent line of interpretation that I had been resisting from the outset. I knew this line of interpretation could not fail to cause distress to the family and I remained very conscious of the fact that McAuley's widow lived in the same small town as myself. I also knew it was likely to enrage his Cold War compatriots who interpret any attempt to read McAuley's anti-communism in terms of social-sexual anxiety as a slur on the holy crusade against Stalin for which they were all now congratulating themselves.

In all intellectual honesty I could not avoid it.

My solution to my moral qualms on this score – which on reflection was less than satisfactory – was stylistic. I wrote the book covering McAuley's public life between 1942 and his death in 1976 in a detached and scholarly manner, what one critic has conceded to be "dry fairmindedness". At the very end of the book I added a postscript, stylistically quite different from the other chapters in that it is written in overtly subjective voice: tentative, speculative and candid. Here I talked about McAuley's protean style and the difficulty I had in getting a fix on the man. I explained that in my reading of McAuley, his way of dealing with what he hated and feared in himself was to externalise his guilt on to the malevolent, preternatural force which he had acknowledged in New Guinea in 1949: the Devil. Hence the title I gave the book, The Devil and James McAuley.In the last eight pages I pose the question that had nagged me from the very beginning: what was it so terrified McAuley? I was greatly puzzled about the nocturnal fear that could make a young man wake up screaming and drive him to beat his body against the furniture. Night after night. For years. To suggest this tormented man could be disturbed by ambivalent sexuality is an entirely unremarkable speculation, almost old-fashioned in its reticence, as Chris Wallace-Crabbe indicated when he called my postscript "quaint" and wryly noted that I had been adroit in giving myself little space to explore it. Just so. The Devil and James McAuley is as circumspect as I felt I could honestly be without destroying the integrity of my interpretation.

Hostile critics have pointed to the "thin evidentiary basis" for my speculation that McAuley's fear was a response to transgressive desire, as if one can produce factual evidence for something as slippery as desire. They then proceeded to attack me for having cast a slur on the man. In this era of identity politics it is very difficult to talk about homosexual desire or homoerotic relationships without appearing to have made a definitive characterisation, but I must insist that having established that McAuley was a contradictory and complex man, my intention was not to render him simple and transparent. My speculation was merely that McAuley was terrified by his sexual urges, especially the homoerotic, and he displaced his terror onto the Devil and his Communist agents. Such speculation could only be controversial to those old Cold War warriors looking for a sword to smite me with.

That said, I don't resile from responsibility for putting into the public domain information about McAuley's personal life which will pain his family.

Jim McAuley relished covert activity, in politics and his personal life. Digging around in the residue of that life it was inevitable that I would find out about secrets which made a mockery of the moral code he so loudly and publicly professed. Nevertheless I used only such secrets as I felt necessary to my support my view that McAuley was a man driven by guilt and self-loathing. Quite a bit has been left unsaid. Too much is left unsaid for McAuley's ex-student Peter Pierce, who notes in his review that "there is nothing so game enough nor so legally imprudent as to amount to a revelation…one would have expected she would have had more to say about the adulterous McAuley who is bought to book late in the piece…no names are supplied". I wonder why Professor Pierce expects that I should make such injurious revelations. No doubt he accepts Janet Malcolm's dictum that the biographer's business is not to place limits on voyeurism but to satisfy the reader's curiosity; to dig up all the "malevolent secrets" of the dead and put them on display.

I can't agree with Malcolm that this is the necessary job of the biographer. I believe the writer has an ethical responsibility to consider the human frailty of those who would be exposed and hurt by the secrets of the dead. Yet at the same time my writerly integrity is bound up in the veracity of the tale I am able to construct out of the vagaries of memory and the treacherous detritus left behind. Since we can never know the truth, it is fundamentally important that what I write makes psychological and moral sense of the material available to me and that my story does say something meaningful about the human condition.

These twin horns of ethical responsibility present me with a disconcerting and diasagreeable dilemma.

For my next project I prefer to leave the graveyard to the dogs.

Dr Cassandra Pybus is one of Austrlia's most distinguished non-fiction writers. She is the author of seven books and her latest book is acontrover sial studyof the poet and polemicist James McAuley, The Devil and James McAuley.Cassandra can be contacted atcass@mail.mpx.com.au

Also on Australian Humanities Review:
  • Read a transcript ofJohn Docker's addressat the Canberra launch ofThe Devil and James McAuley.
  • Aresponseto "Dogs and the Graveyard" has been received from Leith Morton.

Return to part one of this essay.

Works Cited

Raymond Foye (ed), The Unknown Poe: An anothology of Fugitive Writings,City Lights, 1980.

Ian Hamilton, "A Biographer's Misgivings", Walking Possession,Bloomsbury, 1994

Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer,Random House, 1990and The Silent Woman,Picador, 1994

George Plimpton, Truman Capote,Picador, 1999

Gitta Sereny, Cries Unheard

Will Self, "A Life of Crime",The Independent on Sunday,9 May 1999

Gore Vidal, "Tennessee Williams" reprinted inUnited States: Essays 1952-1992, Andre Deutsch, 1993

Also on Australian Humanities Review:

  • Read a transcript ofJohn Docker's addressat the Canberra launch ofThe Devil and James McAuley.
  • Aresponseto "Dogs and the Graveyard" has been received from Leith Morton.

Return to part one of this essay.

Please feel free to contribute to this discourse.

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