Uncanny parody, power and the performance of writing
  • Deborah Hunn

In this combined critical and creative work, my experimental short story ‘A Tale of Two Slippers’ (in which a character escapes a text to kill her author) is framed through an introduction in which cultural studies theory and reflections on practice-led research provide insights into how parody and the performance of writing can work uncannily and generatively to resist the power relations embedded in conventions of genre and the author/text binary. The key focus is on parody, and its uncannily doubled discourse (Barfield and Tew, 2002), which combines with the added critical edge of metafiction and ontological/textual slippage, to explore the creative potential of Australian cultural engagement with hegemonic conventions of judgement and genre, and to consider the subversive edge that writing from the margins might bring to this endeavour.  

Keywords: Parody — Uncanny — Hoax – Ontology — Joke — Creative Writing — Satire — Author — Haunting

 

‘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 author of the poem cited above (‘Culture as Exhibit’ 1944) is Ern Malley, a mid-20th century Australian poet who I would like to evoke as a presiding spirit of the short creative work ‘A Tale of Two Slippers’, to which this introduction provides a partial, if by no means comprehensive, frame. Ern has haunted Australian literary culture, not just its authors, but editors, publishers, critics, artists and academics, for some seventy years, informing discussions on critical judgement, the delayed impact of literary modernism in Australia, the agency of the text, the power and place of the author, and his/her much debated Barthesian death (Barthes 1968). It is also, I would suggest, an illustration of the peculiarly performative and transformative potential of the dark arts of parody, in this instantiation taking on a doubleness that, drawing on Bartholomew and Tew’s work on Bergson and Beckett (2002) can be understood, in its destabilising play of the familiar and the unfamiliar, to be an instance of what Freud termed ‘The Uncanny’ (Freud 1919).   

Ernest Lalor Malley was published posthumously in the Australian avant-garde literary journal Angry Penguins in 1944, his Wildean first name abbreviated (as Australians are wont to do) to the everyday Ern, as befitting his proletarian roots and motor mechanic background. Ern was hailed as a preternaturally gifted autodidact—an antipodean Eliot gone too soon—by Angry Penguin’s passionately pro-modernist young editor Max Harris, who had discovered the poems via some samples sent to him, along with an explanatory letter, from Ern’s sister Ethel.  Malley it seemed had recently passed away from Graves’ Disease, Ethel had then found the poems amongst his possessions and an unnamed friend had recommended she send them to Harris: ‘It would be a kindness,’ she wrote to him, ‘if you could let me know whether you think there is anything in them. I am not a literary person myself and I do not feel I understand what he wrote’ (Ethel Malley 1943).  Ethel’s suburban discomfort with culture, ready deference to Harris’ opinion and convenient vagueness on details, was, as Michael Heywood has suggested in his fine book The Ern Malley Affair (1993) the ideal vehicle to carry Ern’s poetry into the Harris camp1 while the poetry itself was sufficiently deceptive in its mix of striking and awkward images, hit and miss formal experiment, thematic angst, derivative touches, periodic blunders and ingénue pretentiousness to suggest—at least to the willingly receptive—a fresh, if untutored, new voice.   

The hoax, as indeed it was eventually revealed to be, was perpetrated by two young poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, graduates of Sydney University, who were, at that stage of World War II, serving in the Australian Army with time to kill in desk jobs in Victoria Barracks, Melbourne.  The pair shared a scepticism about the excesses of modernism and its various movements, particularly surrealism, a ‘distaste’ for the ‘decay of meaning and craftsmanship in poetry’, and a disgust at the way in which would-be Australian bohemians like Harris easily succumbed to an English and American ‘literary fashion’ which, as they put it, was at worst ‘a collection of garish images, without meaning and structure’ (McAuley and Stewart, qtd. in Fact, 1944). Setting out to test Harris’ judgment by pranking him through what they termed ‘a wonderful jape’ (Heywood 1993, 101)  they were eventually to release a statement identifying themselves and seemingly aimed at humiliating Harris through an insistence that the Malley poems were deliberately bad, thrown together in one afternoon in a slapdash manner from lines culled without purpose from an odd mix of books ready to hand (a Dictionary of rhyme, a collected Shakespeare, an American report on mosquitos and drainage). They had, they happily confessed:  ‘Misquoted and made false allusions’ and ‘deliberately perpetrated bad verse…’ (McAuley and Stewart, qtd. in Fact, 1944).

Yet, as Michael Heywood notes, this subsequent statement underplays the artfulness of the work. Not only (as McAuley and Stewart in fact later conceded) did the work contain sufficient touches of poetic craft and promise to prevent it being rejected out of hand, Heywood comments that any:

assertion that Malley lacks all literary value will not do because it does not consider the poems as parody. A satire in perfect tune with the mannerisms of its target, the sequence is a technically dazzling imitation, and a literary attack as coherent and intelligent as, say, Shamela, Henry Fielding’s comic put down of Richardson’s Pamela. (Heywood 1993, 184-185)

It certainly dazzled Harris who, despite ridicule persisted in arguing the virtues of the Malley poems for many years to come and who was joined by others along the way in a debate that continues to the present. Meanwhile, Malley’s spectre was to haunt McCauley and Stewart, both of whom went on to have productive careers in writing, publishing and academia, but both of whose legacies are inextricably and ironically entwined with the work and legend of Ern Malley.  The ongoing currency of the affair, meanwhile, is well evidenced by Peter Carey's novel of 2004, My Life as Fake, which transforms Ern’s haunting spirit into a full blown realisation of metaphor at the level of characterisation and plot; an ontological slippage whereby Bob McCorkle, the fake poet invented by the intradiegetic Stewart/McAuley hybrid, Christopher Chubb, suddenly appears post-fake as a grotesque real life character to pursue and chastise Chubb, wreaking revenge on his artistic future and his personal life, whilst also independently authoring brilliant poetry.  

In its content and outcomes, the Malley hoax, and its extension in Carey’s novel in the aggrieved Bob McCorkle—a Frankenstein’s monster of a ‘man’—seems to provide an example of parody’s links to the uncanny, as identified by Steven Barfield and Philip Tew in their discussion of Samuel Beckett’s late works. Drawing on Henri Bergson’s theories of humour in his 1911 study Laughter, they argue that:

parody works by means of a complex transformation of material with respect to the conventions which contextualise it. What is regarded as ‘serious’ becomes ‘playful’ and what was ‘distanced’ becomes ‘familiar’. Parody must maintain the link with the original source in order to produce its humorous and dislocating effects. (If the reader does not recognise the original context and conventions, then there is no joke). Parody therefore has a ‘deconstructive’ force that reminds us of the original context, even as it makes us laugh at the new context into whish the material has been situated. (100-101)

The pair also refer to Patricia Waugh’s comment, in Metafiction, that a vital aspect of parody is ‘a post-structuralist differential or relational kind of repletion that stresses only difference’ (Waugh, qtd. in Barfield and Tew 101). ‘Bergson’s view’, they go on to suggest:

adds a neo-psychoanalytic twist to the type of account offered by Waugh, by suggesting that parody has an ‘uncanny’ element to its work. He implies that what was originally objectified and distant becomes familiar and homely, which would at first sight look like a comforting reversal of the process of Freud’s concept of the uncanny, where what was familiar becomes unfamiliar. Nevertheless, the final effect as it is with Freud’s uncanny would seem to be the introduction of difference into the relationship between familiar and unfamiliar, homely and distant.  (p.120)

Of course, in the Malley parody, the joke resides in the target reader misinterpreting the playful as serious, a misinterpretation that arises, I would argue, because the reciprocity between the parody in the text and the text parodied results in an uncanny similarity that confronts reader and author alike with something of an ontological horror:  Is it good or bad, original or derivative, intended or unintended? Is the author writing the text, or the text writing the author? And what does it mean—for the writing process, for taste and for judgement, for the power and place of author, reader and text—to be unsure which is which? 

These problems in turn reveal another dilemma—one that resonated most strongly with my own creative practice as it unfolded in the process of writing ‘A Tale of Two Slippers’—one indeed which impacted and changed that process. To say that parody is a double-edged sword is either to succumb to a supremely banal cliché or to reclaim that thoroughly blunted metaphor through recourse to the very thing it so badly claims to explain: parody.  In short, one may start by writing an out-an-out parody of genre, as I did, in a script piece that aimed, as part of an experiment initially designed to test an exercise for a Writing Humour unit I was teaching, to take a broad swipe at the persistent popularity of lushly costumed, English romantic dramas amongst a certain type of anglophone Australian reader or TV viewer. And then, as I began to absorb the requisite style and tone, the horrors of that very absorption—what might be termed, to draw on Judith Butler (1990), the sedimentation of the act of writing character as a mode of performativity, even if entered into with tongue in cheek aims—led me to embrace its ontological and creative challenge to my own authorial identity as, in effect, a call to honour, in my small way, Foucault’s assertion that ‘where there is power, there is resistance’ (1987, 95).

Thus, horrified at my own collusion, and inspired not a little by my knowledge (dare I say admiration?) of both the Malley hoax, and Peter Carey’s metafictive mining of its creative potential in My Life as a Fake,  I aligned myself with the cause and voice of perhaps the weakest of the characters in the genre I was seeking to mock, through critically edged mimicry: the middle aged or elderly woman, made vulnerable in a patriarchal and acquisitive society by an ambiguous class status and too little (and occasionally too many) material resources; a character/woman whose life, is rarely at the centre of such (or even now, much) fiction; a character and a woman with whom a middle aged woman servant of the early twenty-first century Academy such as myself was perhaps inclined to feel some affinity.

The outcome of this process was…                               

                                                    A Tale of Two Slippers

‘I have said that people have to acquire a good deal of skill in character‐reading if they are to live a single year of life without disaster.’ (Virginia Woolf 1924, 5)

Mrs Looney—for so, dear reader, she had most recently been known—stood yet again disgruntled on the margins of the manuscript, awaiting her cue to enter. Around her portly frame there puffed, like a giant sea urchin, a silver and crimson ball-gown, beneath the bell of which two torturously tiny pink silk slippers tapped out time to the volley of grumbles that their wearer aimed upwards at the pinched, distracted visage of her mistress, ‘that foolish woman,’ who pecked ‘daft as a Christmas chicken’ at the various  leather bound volumes stretched out temptingly, like handsome but impecunious suitors across the capacious, shiny oak desk behind which she sat.

‘How dare you imagine me this way yet again Madam! A vacuous pre-amble and there I’ll be, taking my seat, no doubt at an elegant tea party, or faux rustic picnic laid out in M’Lord Cock a’Snook’s folly; the butt of sly narratorial digs and the joshing of callous girls with peaches and cream for complexions and worms for hearts, like that wretched Lavinia/Georgiana/Constantinia creature that you persist, despite the temper of these modern times, and the climate of these distant parts, in stretching out of what I must, I fear I really must, join the critics in saying Madam is very thin stuff indeed. I suppose I’ll rabbit on like a veritable loon at picnics, beset by verbal absurdities—or else fall stupidly for some elegant young man who’ll flirt back at me for a lark; and then there’ll be the pity—the hideous pity—I must endure when directly the joke goes too far and the young heroine redeems herself by showing kindness to the addle-pated old nincompoop, her hopes doused in ridicule, weeping under that blasted willow tree!’

To this frenetic discourse there came in response from the aforesaid Madam only a sustained silence, accompanied by a persistent fussing with old leathery books and luxuriantly quilled ancient pens and ink soused scraps of notepaper, and the dying crust of a sandwich muddled with the blotter, nibs and pins, and then the books again. And then, finally, a turn of urgency to one large blood reddish velvet covered book, until, provoked past the point of endurance by her creator’s indifference, the enraged minor character drew herself up to her full (if not particularly prolific) height.

‘I am neither lonely nor loosely, nor la-lah, nor lewdly, nor lardy, nor looney Madam! No. So, whatever ridiculous variation thereon you are about to bestow upon me, please do me the courtesy to desist!’ And with this Mrs ‘I am not Looney’s’ moon-face flamed red and she stuck out her tongue, violently expelling further denunciatory words with pointed precision as if they were venomous little darts. ‘I am sick to death of these facile reincarnations—all of piece whatever their status: matrons and dowagers; washerwomen and cooks; overstuffed spinster aunts and impecunious cousins—jolly, jolly, jolly, silly, silly, silly—never a grey day, never a shaded mood to wander in. You’ve squandered my prospects Madame! My prospects! You’ve bludgeoned my soul into a hideous midget, a jester’s prop. When will I have MY time?’

To this tirade, however, her mistress, remained indifferent; remained indeed veritably (to borrow one of the good lady writer’s own fondly used metaphors) stone deaf; her back inflexibly turned as she poured closely over the pages of the red velvet bound volume, as she slowly turned its wan tissue-y paper and scanned each line with an eager inky finger, as if her life depended on the secrets to be revealed therein.

‘And this wretched idiolect! Dr Johnson, your constant companion in crime, has a deal to answer to—and were the time propitious Madam, were the time indeed, I assure you I would let him know directly, following Miss Rebecca Sharp, whose late lamented Master you can only so palely imitate... I… I… A new century is upon us Madam, and I will have my moment to fly!’

And here, just as she began to reach for grander, more literary insults, to hurl—in lieu of a book—at her mistress’ dull, brown-bunned head, she saw that very head lift and turn, and with it the meagre body above which it sat, saw in that rotating moment revealed, pressed to the silly woman’s flat loveless breast, the bolded, gold, jagged letters from which the title of the large red volume was composed: Mysterious Murders of Regency Britain, A True Account of Their Nature and Execution. A Study by Major General Sir F.A. Kennelworth-Entwhistle (Ret) MVO, KCMG.  

Momentarily Mrs Looney paused her tirade, as if in contemplation of the import of this illustrious tome, and its impressively decorated author. Then, and in a sweeter, more conciliatory tone, she began again.

‘Ah yes Madame, yes! Here is our opportunity to shine! Yes, do choose killers this time my dear. Oh please! And if I cannot be the heroine then make me at least the villain of the piece, a twisted, scheming and murderous femme-fatale, impeccable by day, mangling my victims by night, soaking them in my acid rage, strangling their pitiful dreams in my clawed hands as succour for the evisceration of my own. Think Madame Defarge.  Vive La Revolution! Make me knit!  Make me hide the rotted, gnarled root of my evil, the white ash of my soul, beneath a veneer of humble pleasantry. Give me depth; dimension. A wronged woman banished to these wretched colonies, returned to the old country haunt her traducers; a Magwitch of the female persuasion, no misery guts Haversham for me. That’s right Madam, turn this way yes, that is it, do so directly my dear, pull up your chair, pick up your pen—that idiotic quill—yes, good girl, plan—plot—write—look around you for the stuff from which you compose your world. Go now to your repertoire of characters, your little stock company—but then think again. Forget the lazy ones, buried deep within the cover-sheets, the snoozy fools, the over-used time servers and toadies whose sun has long since set—decaying golden lads and lasses all! Here I am at your service, as ever—here I am! How am I to comport myself? How pray tell? What gown and what visage to wear? What implements concealed about my person? What sturdy or sinister replacement for these absurd slippers... a velvet boot… a lethal stiletto… a... what… what?

‘What!!!!!!...’

Green ink poured out from Madam’s scribbling quill, moving relentlessly across the white page like a gush of ripe sewerage.

The plump, blood spattered body of Miss Lucinda Mac Loone lay naked across the creamy sheets of Lord Dashwood’s fine four poster bed. The Lord, who had assiduously declined, for that last week, all suggestions that he ally his house with that of the rich but uncomely  Scots spinster—damn that old bag of haggis, daughter of a Brewer on the make—himself had made the discovery, and his friends were later to say that they could not wager on what  horrified the Lord  more—the sight of her obese corpse, the gruesome manner of her death, the suspicion that he might have murdered her, or the stain of upon his manhood arising from any belief that he could have willingly engaged in carnal knowledge of this ungainly piece of nouveau riche tartan stock.

‘What!!! A victim Madam? A victim and fool? In the first paragraph! Gone! Not even a moment to breathe before breath is extinguished! Never!’

Here Mrs Looney kicked her heels viciously against the paper, and boxed her clenched fists into the air, as if trying break through that intangible yet impermeable barrier that separated her from a King hit on her creator’s eye. But if the scribbling bun of Madam remained bowed and indifferent to her creature’s anguish then the tall, dark and handsomely crafted oak bookcase that stood along the wall behind the writing desk did not. It had suffered much of Madam’s nonsense over at least two decades, having been required to bear her over-laboured fruits on its well-built, fine grained shelves. Call it fancy if you will, but with each word it seemed to hearken more keenly to Mrs ‘I am not’ Looney and to tower and jut more boldly above the back of its owner, as if emboldened to lean forward to catch more closely some particularly pointed phrase of denunciation, accusation or critique. 

Indeed, dear reader, an impartial—or fanciful—bystander might well have considered this inanimate object to be nodding in sympathy with its owner’s accuser, for it rocked just a little further, and then just a little more, as if balancing neatly on its heels, and then…and then the books themselves began to totter. Perhaps began to titter. To titter and to totter, to totter and to titter, until their noble rocking bearer stopped suddenly, attentively poised at the slightest of angles, and hung, motionless, as if pricking up its ears to….

‘Judas!’ The little slippers nailed and railed down the word. ‘Judas! ‘The books, shocked to silence, braced themselves. Their owner continued to scribble, impervious.

‘Judas!’

And with that the bookcase hurled itself forward with Herculean force, tumbling swiftly so that the sharp topmost ledge corner struck the back of Madam’s head with a sudden sickening crack, hammering it, with pinioning force, onto the hard, unforgiving top of the writing desk. A tumbling Bible, which for many years had perched smugly atop the heroic bookcase squealed ‘Mother of God!’ as it smacked to the ground. Madam’s tooth-cut lower lip quivered, bubbled blood, then fell slack.  Her limp hands hung over the edge, wilted, like those of a petty thief in the stocks. Meanwhile, propelled forward by the momentum of the execution, sheets of paper shot out into the air and, haloed by freckles of dust, slowly floated downwards to the floor. First to land was the half written opening page, its wounding words now partially submerged beneath a big green blot from the spilled ink bottle, comingled with ripe red splatters.  

A keen eye would also have spotted, near the bottom of the offending page, two tiny splashes of pink, which seemed to blend almost imperceptibly together and then curve upwards. Some, dear reader, might have deemed these to be merely diluted specks of blood forming a crescent shape; others however, perhaps more suspiciously or imaginatively minded, and who would have doubtless been mistaken, might have claimed instead to spy slipping upwards a slow, satisfied pinkish smile.

 

Note:

1. Heywood notes that in Ethel Malley, McAuley and Stewart ‘anticipated by a decade’ Barry Humphries’ invention of ‘that formidable icon of the Australian suburban sensibility, Edna Everage.’ (129)

 

Works cited: 
 

Barfield, S and P Tew 2002 ‘Philosophy, Psychoanalysis and Parody: Exceedingly Beckett’, in Marius Bruning, Matthijs Engelberts and Sjef Houppermans (eds) Samuel Beckett Today/ Aujourd’ hui. Pastiches Parodies and Other Imitations/ Pastiches, Parodies and Autres Imitations. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 93-104

Barthes, R 1968 ‘The Death of the Author’, in R Barthes 1977 Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana; New York: Noonday Press

Butler, J 1990 Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London and New York: Routledge

Carey, P 2004 My Life as a Fake. Sydney: Random House Australia

Freud, S 1919 ‘The Uncanny’, in A Freud, A Strachey and A Tyson (eds) 1955 The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. 17. London: Hogarth Press, 217-256

Foucault, M 1987 The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Volume 1. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd

Heywood, M 1993 The Ern Malley Affair. London: Faber and Faber

Kennelworth-Entwhistle, Major General Sir F.A. (Ret) MVO, KCMG 1869 Mysterious Murders of Regency Britain, A True Account of Their Nature and Execution. A Study. London: Malvolio and Leggington Pulford

Malley, E 1944 ‘Culture as Exhibit’ in The Official Website, ‘Malley Poetry’, at http://www.ernmalley.com/malley_poetry.html (accessed 23 June 2017)

Malley, E 1943 ‘Letter to Max Harris, 28 October 1943’ reprinted in Jacket: The Special Hoax Issue. Ern Malley Feature. 17, June 2002, at http://jacketmagazine.com/17/ern-ethel-ltr.html (accessed 23 June 2017)

McAuley and Stewart, quoted in ‘Ern Malley, Poet of Debunk: full story from the two authors’ in Fact. July 25, 1944, full article reprinted in Jacket 17. The Special Hoax Issue. Ern Malley Feature. June 2002, at http://jacketmagazine.com/17/fact2.html (accessed 20 April 2018)

Woolf, V 1924 Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown (Pamphlet), London: Hogarth Press, at https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/mr-bennett-and-mrs-brown/ (accessed 23 June 2017)