‘The Devil and James McAuley’ by Cassandra Pybus

In August 1999, John Docker launched The Devil and James McAuleyby Cassandra Pybus

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It is with great pleasure that I talk this afternoon about Cassandra’s new book The Devil and James McAuley,a very handsome volume published by that excellent publishing house University of Queensland Press.

I’ve very much enjoyed Cassandra’s writing in the past, not least her controversial book on the Sydney Sparkes Orr imbroglio in the philosophy department at the University of Tasmania, and her moving work on Tasmanian Aboriginal History, Community of Thieves.Cassandra clearly ‘belongs’ as it were to Tasmania, its contexts past and contemporary that are not without the clamour of clash and strife. But Cassandra belongs to more than one locality; in an admirably worldly cosmopolitan way she has written on diverse topics and fields relating to Australia and beyond Australian shores. And indeed my first memory – though memory is notoriously unreliable – of Cassandra is meeting her at a bohemian pub in Sydney, in Balmain, the Forth and Clyde, when she and I and Ann Curthoys, who had recently had the misfortune to meet me, were postgraduates and on the edges of Sydney’s libertarian subculture.

James McAuley of course would later move from Sydney to become a professor of English at the University of Tasmania, and Cassandra has lived in Tasmania for the past 15 years and has made diverse explorations of its colonial and intellectual and cultural and political histories.

Cassandra’s new book on McAuley (it is just beginning to lose that smell of new paper that I rather fetishistically and perversely enjoy in new books – I like smelling them) is very enjoyably controversial. Cassandra has not let her admirers down: on the very contrary. The reception of the book so far has been dominated by cranky or at least repudiating reviews from old Cold Warriors mentioned, sometimes rather sardonically, in the book like Peter Coleman and Gerard Henderson. The newspapers asking for reviews from figures such as these might suggest to those who had not yet had the opportunity to acquire the book (I’m not sure what reports of Gough Whitlam’s launching speech in Sydney suggested) that Cassandra’s book is devoted wholly to discussing McAuley’s role in the Cold War in Australia in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, in his being the founding editor of Quadrant,or his relations with the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom, or his secret activities in support of B.A. Santamaria’s secret ‘movement’, or his effusive admiration for Marshall Ky the one-time rather comical South Vietnamese dictator. This is a misleading impression, for Cassandra’s book begins with the young McAuley’s life from the late 1930s at Sydney University and downtown in pubs and bars as a raffish poet, brilliant piano player, and composer of sharp revue songs, including playing the piano with great gusto in a New Theatre satirical revue, I’d Rather Be Left,over Christmas 1940 and into 1941. The New Theatre was, as Cassandra points out, well known to be close to the Communist Party.

Reading the opening sections of the book on McAuley’s pre-Cold War life in Sydney town, my home city, reminded me of odd intersections with aspects of my own past. Cassandra reminds us that McAuley was a Sydney western suburbs boy brought up by respectable lower-middle-class parents, and here my background was different somewhat; I was brought up in Bondi, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, in a Communist and Jewish family.

My uncle Jock Levy was a prominent actor and director in New Theatre from 1941, tho’ I don’t think he was associated with this particular revue where McAuley starred – live. I looked up the list of New Theatre plays my uncle gave me for the book I am currently writing, which includes my family history. McAuley went to Fort Street Boys High School, as did my son Ned much later in the early 1990s. Cassandra records that when the Menzies government banned the Communist Party in June 1940, McAuley became nervous about his collection of anarchist literature – there had been Commonwealth Investigation Branch officers disguised, perhaps none too adroitly (think of Meredith Burgmann commenting on the NSW Special Branch), at the revue performances, transcribing its clever lyrics and funny dialogue. McAuley got rid of his collection, fearing raids by the Special Branch. My own father, Ted Docker, a highly placed member of the Communist Party, also feared such raids, and buried a collection of pamphlets and books in South Coogee, near where he had lived with his mother. One day, when he was old, I went with my father to South Coogee to try and find the spot where he had buried them – he thought it was beside a particular tree; but we couldn’t find anything, and made a sad way home.

In charting the dramatic changes in McAuley’s beliefs and attitudes, Cassandra records the move from rather derivative romantic symbolist and stock modernist poet as well as bohemian and university wag, to stern unrelenting convert to a derivative Catholicism and apocalyptic Cold Warrior – Ice Man, I’m tempted to say, who, as she notes, actively spied on his colleagues and perhaps his friends for ASIO, passing information he felt might be useful to them in their secret attempts ñ the secrecy of the assassin in history – to harm or damage or destroy people’s lives and careers. I find this very noteworthy and rather astonishing to contemplate: that Cold Warriors like McAuley (and Knopfelmacher I think Cassandra mentions), warning the world of the evils of Communist intolerance and unfreedom, could for years mix with people, presumably get drunk with them – he was of that generation of Australian men who drank very heavily – tell bawdy jokes for which he was famous, then, later, calmly write a report on the people he was just smiling and joking and laughing with and send it off to a secret state body dedicated to surveillance. His own life had been harmed when he was young by such surveillance – he lost his collection of anarchist materials that he found, Cassandra tells us, by scouring second hand bookshops. Now with glacial dedication he hoped to harm the life of others.

One historical equivalent I can think of here is the Iberian peninsula in the fifteenth and sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, under the grip of the Inquisition. Recall that in the early months of 1492 the Jews of Spain – those who had not become conversos – were expelled. In the late 1490s some of these ethnically cleansed Jews made their way to Portugal, where they were forcibly converted to Catholicism and became known as New Christians – amongst these might have been my own ancestors, for family stories suggested that we were descended from Portuguese Jews. Early in the sixteenth century, in 1506, thousands of New Christians were massacred in Lisbon in riots led by Dominican friars. Not too long after, the Inquisition reached Portugal, and the ex-Jewish New Christians and the Moriscos, the Moors who had also been made to covert, were subject to a society of surveillance, where reading Hebrew or Arabic texts or being circumcised or performing any Jewish or Muslim ritual would be reported to the authorities and the offenders frequently arrested, tortured, and burnt in Inquisitional fires. The Inquisition created a Portuguese society of fear and mistrust, sinister and dangerous. It also created blood purity laws to distinguish between New Christians and Old Christians – perhaps equivalent to the Cold War distinction between those ideologically impure and pure. The insistence by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 that a society be unified in ethnicity, religion, culture and mores also created the disaster of European nationalism and ultimately in my view the horror of Nazism.

McAuley of course admired medieval Catholicism and wrote a well-known poem about the sixteenth and seventeenth century Portuguese explorer Captain Quiros. And McAuley also enjoyed the luxury of voluntary conversion.

The closest contemporary equivalent I can register here are the activities of intellectuals and writers in East Germany, reporting on their colleagues and friends to STASI. East Germany appears to have been a grotesque society whose main and consuming activity was its citizens spying on each other; they seemed to do very little else. Such would also appear to be the kind of society favoured and relished by McAuley and his Cold War associates.

In recent months we have witnessed the remarkable theatre of the radio announcer for Sydney’s 2UE, John Laws, seeing nothing remotely ethically wrong in – at least allegedly – being offered 1.2 million dollars to change his mind about Australia’s banks without telling his listeners that this is what he was doing. To most in Australian society, I imagine, a radio talkback host being a hired gun for secret interests represents a corruption of the society. Robert Manne wrote in the Sydney Morning Heraldthat rightwing moralists like Gerard Henderson and Ron Brunton were not totally dissimilar to John Laws: they worked for dubious institutes without ever revealing or declaring the business interests – Australia’s venal banks perhaps? – who supported those institutes. Perhaps we can see James McAuley in this aspect as very much the John Laws of the 1950s and 60s. He worked forQuadrant who certainly never volunteered the information that it was funded by the CIA through the Congress for Cultural Freedom – and McAuley, once the revelations of CIA funding appeared, wrote that he really couldn’t see anything wrong with being funded by such a beneficent body. He worked for, and presumably was paid by, ASIO and perhaps other intelligence agencies. Unlike Laws, he was certainly committed to certain beliefs. But like Laws he was a hired gun who worked with double masks, in public and in secret.

Some of the burden of the complaints from the old Cold Warriors is that Cassandra’s book, by alleging that McAuley’s life was not exemplary – that he might have had numerous affairs while claiming the universal sanctity of marriage, that he was homoerotic while denouncing homosexuality, that he was subject to nightmares and rages – is somehow a slur on the holy and righteous project of the Cold War itself. This project was to oppose and destroy the scourge of Communism, a spreading totalitarian system that had killed millions of people in the Soviet Union. I was discussing this claim with another Old Fortian – my son – and he said this sounds like a kind of vulgar Hegelianism, as if there is a teleological progression of true thought in history, where certain stages are necessary for the good of humanity. In these terms, the Cold War was an historical advance for humanity, and should not be criticised.

Happily, Cassandra does not believe in such teleological thinking which always wishes to excuse and exalt, indeed which in the case of ideologues like Manne and Henderson is clearly self-admiring. History is far more complex, tortured, wayward, simultaneously destructive and creative, ironic, and cruel than such Cold War teleology is capable of perceiving. Cassandra has followed the Cold Warriors into the archives – in so far as she has been permitted to see them; for a curious aspect of the Cold Warriors is that, complaining vociferously about the lack of freedom and access to records in the former Soviet Union, they closely guard their own archives, frequently closing them or denying access. Cassandra has followed the Cold Warriors into the archives and there found, in McAuley but also in his mentor Conlon, a romance with secrecy, a love of conspiracy, back door dealings, meeting in shadows, shafting in silence. And to me such secrecy is profound betrayal of intellectual life – and lives.

While the Cold War has attenuated – I’m not at all convinced it’s over, given American pathologies – the kind of society that McAuley worked to create has in many ways come disastrously true. Public opinion in the Australian media is dominated not by the intellectual left, who are nowhere to be seen, but by spokesmen for the right – women appear to be nowhere in sight – that is, by commentators like Robert Manne, Gerard Henderson, and the current editor of QuadrantPaddy McGuinness. There is also talk back radio, which is generally unspeakable. Such commentators continue the brutal rhetoric and divisive manner and polarising attitudes of James McAuley, creating an Australian society, as we enter the new millennium, of ugliness, hatred, paranoia, of demonising anyone one doesn’t like, while always claiming ideological and moral purity and, if one can, victimhood.

Cassandra has written a lively, entertaining and enjoyable book, very alive to the conflicts and differences within conservative groupings. She has the daring to break with the stifling convention of Australian literary criticism, which bizarrely is that critics should abandon the critical function, they should be obsequious to Australian writers living and dead, they should puff and promote and endlessly praise them – as Leonie Kramer, Cassandra points out, has tirelessly effected for her friend McAuley.

Congratulations, Cassandra – this is a fine book.


John Docker launched The Devil and James McAuley by Cassandra Pybus, (University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, 1999), at the National Library of Australia, Saturday 7 August 1999.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email ahr@anu.edu.au