by Noel Rowe
© all rights reserved
Once upon a time a man known as “Uncle Hal” was babysitting for a friend when he took out his box of theatrical make-up and set to work. When the trusting mother returned home, she saw:
He had made up her little daughter as ‘a witch with wild eyebrows’ and her toddling son ‘as the littlest, stumbling Mephistopheles you’ve ever seen’. Ann was shocked that her two small children ‘with their fluffy ducks and little rubber toys had been turned into two tiny unknowing monsters’. He reacted airily to her shock: ‘What good are children anyway, dear? I mean, what use are they? You might as well push them through the slats of a cane-bottomed chair and turn them into lampshades as Hitler did.’ (Lord 55-56)
This story is found in Mary Lord’s biography of her writer friend, Hal Porter (1911-1984), in a chapter called “Enter Uncle Hal,” in a book charging that Porter engaged in sexual relations with Lord’s ten year old son. Hal Porter: Man of Many Parts opens with “A Declaration of Bias,” in which Lord reveals this and explains why she remained friends with Porter and persevered with the biography. Even though, as a practised reader of Porter, Lord must have known how he uses empirical details, confessional tones and shocking revelations to establish effects of honesty, she seems to have assumed these were merely narrative devices. She might have been more suspicious had she wondered if the fictive strategies of his life writing were also the fictive strategies of his writing life.
In a manoeuvre Porter would have appreciated, Lord uses her “bias” to secure a moral position from which she can accuse her subject of sin, justify her work as a healing process, and finally pass judgment:
He was a divided personality, divided in very many ways but, most fundamentally, divided against itself. Lacking a central core and having no faith except in his talent, he was amoral, a mass of contradictions and contrasts. (302)
Even so, Lord’s biography cannot contain its ethical activity within its preferred moral position. It also becomes involved in ethical acts rehearsed in Porter’s writing, where questions of honesty, power, trust, complicity, and evasion tangle with narratives of non-innocent children, hypocritical adults, and writers who absolve themselves of mere morals. Lord’s biography has to become thus involved since it is a work of resistance; it wants to provide another narrative and an alternative ethics. Hers is a story in which children cannot be made up as monsters and Uncle Hal can no longer get away with deception. Porter must instead feel guilt and remorse, even though such emotions are more easily identified as hers. She has to tell how she knew of Porter’s affair with an Adelaide schoolboy. She has to tell how, when Porter assured her he was not molesting her son, she wanted to believe him because it allowed her to repress her own experience of being sexually abused as a child. She has to tell how even though Porter told her he was always the hunted, never the hunter, she failed to interpret the warning in the fact that he “used to joke that Patrick was a warlock who could cast spells on people.” (3) She has to confess that, even when she knew, she “could not confront him directly about Patrick,” and this in the same moment that she maintains his seductions “would have required massive and repeated self-deception.” (10) It may seem callous and unfair to suggest that this shift from her failure to his deception is an evasion, but it is necessary since the evasion conceals the ambiguity of Lord’s moral position: while she sometimes indicates a belief that Porter was amoral she nevertheless demands that he have a conscience and be capable of feeling disgust, shame and guilt. It is as if she has to remind herself “this abjection would not have been, had there not been monsters” (Bataille 19) in an attempt to make paedophilia im-possible.
At the same time, she colludes, if not with her friend’s behaviour at least with her writer’s ethico-textual manoeuvres. In justifying why she continued to write his biography, Lord comes dangerously close to Porter’s distinction between Writer and Person (85-89), the distinction by which he raised Writer above the usual moralities (85-89). She claims Porter wanted her to write the biography because he “hoped the truth could be told and he could be absolved.” (299) Whether or not Porter is being absolved, the author is. Recognising that Porter’s family will be distressed by her revelations, Lord asserts:
Their wounds cannot be as severe as those that have been inflicted on me, Patrick and my other children for whom I am responsible. I let them down when they should have been able to depend on me and I am profoundly sorry for it. I hope what I have written will help them to understand. (300)
As understandable as this might be, it is still designed to elicit an agreement that hers is a superior claim to truth and justice. This is partly (I intend no disrespect to victims of sexual abuse) an effect of Lord’s story. One of Lord’s fundamental narrative moves is to associate sexual abuse with shamed silence: “I was a victim of sexual abuse. This involved actions which were not ever and could not ever be put into words.” (8) She then connects her story to her son’s: “I remember becoming confused, then feeling involved in a secret that was somehow a source of incomprehensible guilt. This corresponds to Patrick’s experience.” (9) These moves establish the biography’s ethico-narrative purpose: to arrest sexual abuse in its silence and bring it before speech. Nevertheless, while Lord’s confession may, within the biography, embody a desire for honest and healing narrative, it also betrays an uncanny resemblance to Porter’s fictive manoeuvres:
It was shocking to me that I was expected by my mother to behave as though nothing had ever happened. I was not allowed to express my anger, revulsion or grief; it was a non-discussable subject. Taboo. We continued to enact the happy family within our larger family of grandparents and aunts with their husbands or boyfriends and to the world at large. After a time, I more or less repressed what had happened. I see now that, in this way, I was conditioned to block out what was abominable and unspeakable, to behave as though nothing had happened. (9)
As anyone familiar with his writing can see, this is Porter territory: social hypocrisy and doing “the right thing,” civilised surfaces disguising corrupt interiors, performances designed never to reveal “what was abominable and unspeakable.” What this suggests, in terms of literature and ethics, is that, whatever Lord may intend by exposing Porter as an object of judgment, the ethico-narrative activity of her book is not confined to or by moral judgments on paedophilia. It moves through her narratives of secrecy, shame, and justice and, since she is using these narratives to challenge them, it enters Porter’s narratives where children are predators, hypocrisy is often good manners, and God is dead. It is not, then, enough to identify and evaluate the ethical propositions operating in and between those narratives I have been calling “Lord” and “Porter.” It is necessary to articulate something of the reciprocity that occurs when ethics and narrative share the same space. In order to achieve this, it is useful to shift emphasis from ethical models which privilege rationalism and objectivism (which are not quite the same as rationality and objectivity) and to give some credence to a narrative model of ethics. As Hauerwas and Burrell argue, ethical ideas take on meaning within narrative and moral disagreements involve rival stories. In applying such an insight it is, however, necessary to look for that reciprocated activity by which ethics-as-narrative turns to narrative-as-ethics. In other words, it is necessary to ask how imagery, structure and perspective might be said to incorporate acts of power that have ethical as well as textual value. It is necessary to accept that to raise questions of truth, justice, and freedom in regard to representation and voice is to release powerful analogies that ask ethics and narrative to look to each other. It is necessary, then, to attempt what might be called an “ethographic” reading, one that pays equal attention to ethical and textual qualities as a way of examining how they engage each other.
Most responses to Lord’s biography overlooked the ways in which they themselves related ethics and narrative. They remained so fascinated by Porter’s sexual activity that they uncritically adopted an objectivist stance that located (his) ethics somewhere on the other side of narrative. Among reviews that traded in words such as monster, betrayer and hunter, Mary Lord was quoted: she had to tell the truth because Porter “wanted to be punished and forgiven” (Craven 3); she felt she had done him justice (Sullivan 26). Whatever Lord might have meant by “justice,” one reviewer approved of the “revenge,” (Elliott 12) while another relished “the confrontation with guilt.” (Indyk 96) Peter Porter tried to rescue the writing: “In all matters but his writing, his posing was despicable and selfish. In fiction a pose is an authorial tool.” (380) Leonie Kramer tried to save the writer, seeing Lord’s “Declaration of Bias” as grounds for disqualification. In a manoeuvre that left ethics standing cap in hand at the back door of Literature, Kramer invoked the notion of a purely objective, objectively pure reading and hoped for another study that would “not be tainted by a personal grievance.” (5) Peter Pierce was one of the few to relate sexuality to textuality: “His sexual identity was elaborate and camouflaged. These deceptions of self and others helped generate the baroque splendour of his prose.” (89) Pierce also questioned the “reputation for truthfulness” that had until then been firmly attached to Porter’s autobiographical volume, The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony . (89) David McCooey agreed (186), although he has now reconsidered this (McCooey 2002: 298). More recently, Bruce Bennett commented that Lord’s exposé might encourage readers to look again at Porter’s “fascination with secrets, gossip, rumour, masks and acting.” (165) So far there is little evidence of any such interest. It may be that readers are uncertain how to proceed: such an enterprise demands discussion of the unspeakable, and might easily become a surrogate examination of the author’s moral behaviour. Another factor might well be an anxiety that to use Lord’s knowledge on or against Porter’s writing is somehow to commit an impropriety.
If Lord had indeed been the one to make Porter’s secret public, there might be some reason for hesitation, though I think the evidence within the texts is substantial enough to invite such a reading without the biography – but that is now hypothetical. The simple but significant fact is that it is the narrator of Porter’s first book of autobiography, The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony, who introduces the knowledge of paedophilia into his writing and therefore offers it to reading. This alters the ethographic starting point; it gives a permission that one might otherwise have to presume.
In a section remembering how, as a ten-year-old acting in a school fantasia, he liked the illusion of theatre and the “shoddy disguise” of his costume, the narrator tells how one of the actors, playing King Bunyip, lost his mask. As the child-actor’s mask slips, the narrator cleverly slips his own mask, so cleverly that readers seem not to have noticed:
The next time I recall seeing that face thirty years have passed. I am now a man – at least, a man of sorts – too much a man, too little a man. I have travelled, been married, been divorced, have talked too much here and too little there, have taken my part in experiments with many lives and many bodies, have had dispassionate or stormy adventures in lying, in drunkenness, in adultery, in pederasty, in being charming and kindly, in being vile-tempered and arrogant, in being cruel, in being self-sacrificing, in being human and too human, in being inhuman and too inhuman. (126)
The narrator invites, or dares, the reader to see what is hidden in full view. If there were readers who saw, they did not speak: perhaps they thought pederasty unspeakable, or his admission exaggerated, or his experiment a minor detour. Perhaps they were lulled by Porter’s list into thinking pederasty no more objectionable than drunkenness, or being charming. Even though The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony makes quite a feature of male-to-male prepubescent sexual experimentation, this was seen to guarantee the narrator’s honesty. No one made the standard distinction between the adult narrator and the child self. No one applied that distinction to a book in which sex between boys, one of whom is the narrator-as-child, is being observed. No one came to the uncomfortable realisation that the adult narrator is admitting this sex in both senses: saying it happened in the past, but also bringing it back into view, into play.
The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony gave such a good performance of honesty that readers suspended disbelief, even when the narrator admitted he was a liar. At the very beginning of his story he reveals that he was born with a cleft palate that was secretly mended: “Thus secretly mended, and secretly carrying, as it were, my first lie tattooed on the roof of the mouth that is to sound out so many later lies, I grow.” (9-10) At the same time as he is admitting this, he is declaring (warning?) that he alone can know if he is telling the truth:
Of this house and of what takes place within it until I am six, I alone can tell. No one but I will know if a lie be told, therefore I must try for the truth which is the blood and breath and nerves of the elaborate and unimportant facts. (10)
Perhaps the most important factor in convincing a reader to trust this narrator is the book’s guiding image of the watcher, which suggests that the narrator is someone who wants to see beneath the surface and face the truth. Porter’s image of the watcher obviously invites different readings, ones that focus on the book’s reputation for accurate observation (and social history) and on the divided self of the autobiographical gaze. However, in a book full of references to and images of the theatre, to say nothing of disguises and secrets, the image of the watcher needs to be viewed with some suspicion. As an image it is similar to the actor’s pilot, that capacity to observe and control a performance even as it is being made to seem completely genuine. Ralph Richardson, for example, speaks of acting as “a controlled dream” in which the actor has to at once inhabit and observe the performance ( Burton 71) and Noël Coward remarks that “all acting is a question of control, the control of the actor of himself, and through himself of the audience.” ( Burton 165) Until now, Porter’s theatrical allusions have been referred back to Porter’s interest in and work in the theatre and taken as signs of the book’s historical veracity. But what happens if the images of theatre are a signal for how the narrative performs?
When The Watcher recalls a young Hal taking up teaching, the narrator tells us that his acting skills were a great help:
It would be as tedious to record my minor early mistakes as to record the minor successes: suffice it to say that, in no time, I am a useful teacher, even a good one – dramatic, noisy, happy, over-energetic and a disciplinarian, this last because I will put up with no childish nonsense that interferes with the display of myself or with my conception of what is due to me as an adult. One wears the disguise of manhood seriously at sixteen. The showing-off side of my being; the ability to simulate Lear-like rages I do not feel, as well as the ability to fool myself into being lovingly patient, all serve their purpose. Controlled by the canny and ruthless self-watcher, these qualities are turned into performances that trick the children into obedience. (199)
Here the watcher is the pilot-self observing how the other selves perform and controlling the audience. This is how the watcher operates throughout the autobiography: the narrator is always watching a performance of the self, his gaze directed not simply at mother, father, Williamstown, Bairnsdale, Hal the cadet reporter, Alec, Miss Hart, Hal the junior teacher, and Hal the aspiring writer. At the centre of all these scenes is a non-innocent actor showing and concealing with a control that is at times chilling. When approached for sexual favours by boys, girls and older women (Hal is always approached; he does not initiate) Hal has a favourite line, “I don’t care.” This line allows him to detach and watch himself in the scene. He is “in character” but also “above” his performance, making sure to remember his lines and not bump into the furniture.
This notion of the actor’s layered awareness helps explain the book’s use of chronology. While it seems to move from early childhood, through school years and adolescence, to early career, there is a sense in which The Watcher stays in the narrating present. As it moves between past and present, it manages to create the impression of reaching into its own future. Often these moves are designed to cancel someone who might have been loved and to confirm the narrator in cynicism. Quite often it is their bodies that betray these people, becoming thicker, coarser, less beautiful, more corrupt – and more adult. He admits his own future in a way that suggests, not literary success, but a sexual weariness that is indistinguishable from the sexual indifference attributed to the child Hal. In this way The Watcher writes itself against the theme, prevalent in many autobiographies, of the loss of Eden . While it tempts a reader with an appearance of linear structure (most chapters begin and end at a point of change), its deeper structure is circular, and death is at its centre. The death at the centre is not just mortality and not just the death of the mother: it also the death of innocence. The narrator works hard to persuade the reader that his child is not innocent and that children are not innocent. They learn as they grow towards adulthood to put on masks and disguises, to perform polite, social language, to create the illusion of innocence. There are too many instances for me to list them and they are easily identified. This is one example:
It is suggested that adults teach children. I suggest that children teach children, and that the ‘playing’ they do for adults is not the real masks-off playing they do for themselves. Not until I am myself an adult do adults attempt to teach me sin. Too late. Children do not have to teach each other sin: they merely swap sins as the swap postage-stamps or dolls. (73)
Whereas standard interpretations of Eden tell of the Fall in terms of before and after, opening a division between original innocence and postlapsarian knowledge, Porter writes the division within consciousness itself, erasing any notion of a before and after. Innocence always already is an ideal lost. This is why there is so little sense of change in the narrator’s viewpoint. He remains throughout brutally aware, guarding the child from Paradise .
Porter’s stories and novels also maintain their guard. Paedophilia appears with conspicuous frequency. More importantly, it appears in writing that, by its narrative strategies, encourages hypocrisy, condones secrecy, avoids love, and denies morality any normative power. Readers need to avoid becoming fixed on ethical propositions about paedophilia, assuming an ethographic reading involves no more than imposing these onto the text. This is not to discount the ethical propositions; it is simply to say that those propositions derive their meaning, and their force, from the ways in which they operate within and between narratives of sexuality, honesty, and responsibility. It is simply to say that such an approach, negotiating between ethics-as-narrative and narrative-as-ethics, will provide a more useful basis for an ethico-textual analysis of Porter’s writing.
When Porter died Max Harris praised him for “the loving portrait of a pederast in that first and secret and enigmatic volume he published when his heart was young and grey.” (14) Harris is presumably referring to Short Stories, published privately in 1942, and may be using private knowledge. The book is dedicated to “Shani.in deepest gratitude for the authentic happiness brought by your contribution to our somewhat unusual friendship.” (4) “Shani” was Porter’s name for a student with whom he had sexual relations (Lord 27). It is, however, difficult to find a “loving portrait of a pederast” among these stories. The two that might be disguised accounts of a pederast are not loving. “Carnival Piece” (33-34) undermines what it terms a “scene” of happy activity by continually drawing attention to “the old man in the ghoulish overcoat” (33) and asking “What is he doing in this scene?” (33) As the dirty old man steals something and scuttles off, the narration follows him to a Home for Old Men where he proceeds to make surrogate love to the stolen object, a teddy bear:
He tumbles upon his nasty bed and curls up like a baby. Horr-id! He kisses the bear repeatedly; clutches it to him; squeezes it passionately; peers into its button eyes. He begins to cry noiselessly though he is smiling and smiling. He tries to say.
Ugh! What a wretched actor! What an impossible part! Melodrama. Bathos. Rubbish. (34)
Assuming it is reasonable to claim metonymy for the teddy bear, this story is not simply an expression of that disgust Mary Lord wanted to find in Porter. If “Rubbish” could express an ethical judgment, the emphasis on acting deliberately confuses the ethical with the aesthetic. He may only be a wretched man because he is a wretched actor. “Scene: The Bend of a River” (39-43) inserts an old man with a strange walking stick into another “scene,” this one of people fishing by the river. The story depends on two repetitions: the narrator keeps asking what the old man is looking at; the old man keeps replying “Shark’s backbone” when people ask him what his stick is made of. As the first question is never answered, the answer to the second begins to fill the vacuum. The old man begins to seem as predatory as a shark; the mood becomes increasingly sinister. Suddenly the old man engages a beautiful boy in conversation. Beyond saying “Shark’s backbone,” he has not shown any interest in talking until the boy appears on the scene. Their conversation, about a sporting competition the boy has won, would be insignificant except that is framed by a moment in which the narrator says of the boy “all the while his body is glorious and young, though his voice makes him seem older, makes poignant his physical beauty” (41) and a moment in which one fisherman counsels another to use “a black line” and “let it drift a bit” (41) in order to better ensure a catch.
Later stories more explicitly feature schoolmasters and travellers who have affairs with boys. “The Dream” (Porter 1962: 113-129) tells of a schoolmaster dismissed for seducing a student, though this story is a mask the narrator assumes to give controlled expression to his own attraction for the boy. Indeed, the dismissal could be read as the dream by which the narrator expels his own desire (and locates that desire beyond culpability). Desire is powerfully unspoken in “Say to Me Ronald!” (Porter 1965: 75-91), where Perrot (Porter’s favourite anagram) is uncomfortable because his wealthy Asian student, Wee Soon Wat, wants to give him golf clubs to thank him for extra lessons. The suggestion is that Perrot gave the lessons because he found the seventeen-year-old attractive and that this is what he is resisting in refusing the gift. Wee pursues him, inviting him to dinner and plying him with whiskey: whatever happens will not be Perrot’s fault. “Fiend and Friend” (Porter 1971a: 103-15) is another story in which Perrot pretends to hate the boy he likes. It stumbles, though, when Perrot finds his student, Rymill, has hurt himself during a prank and is lying wounded in the dormitory:
And there, overzealously supported by all the Lost Boys, everyone a finger in the pie, lying in a pansyish though awkwardly sustained pose, was Rymill. One leg, on deliberate foreground display, dripped blood and stained the pyjama-leg torn like a beachcomber’s at a Fancy Dress Ball. (106)
Here “pansyish” signifies something at once attractive and denied, “deliberate foreground display” hints at the boy’s seductive agency, and the stained pyjama leg might even symbolise sexual non-innocence. As a way of thanking Perrot for tending his wound, Rymill gives his teacher a python skin. Perrot meets Rymill and another student thirteen years later and, because he needs to, assumes he is the ugly one of the two. When he realises Rymill is the handsome one, Perrot covers his awkwardness by asking him did he really kill the python himself. Rymill smiles, and some readers at least are left wondering who is killing what python. “My Pal Rembrandt” (Porter 1970: 84-108) involves one of Porter’s malicious portraits of the arty homosexual: Simon Hart-Browne has come under the control of the Japanese yakuza by bedding the fifteen-year-old son of a yakuza family. What offends the narrator, who knows a lot about where and how to get sexual trade, is not that Hart-Browne has had sex with a boy, but that he has been so obvious about it. “Rajani in Ueno – a Biography” (Porter 1970: 133-71), which tells how a famous dancer got his break when, as a handsome youth adrift in Japan, he was picked up by a wealthy Polish count, has a narrator who presents himself as someone drawn almost against his will into the world of a much older Rajani, though he knows enough to realise that Rajani’s bodyguards are making money by picking up men on Hampstead Heath, remarking that they “have not even had the decency to be hypocrites.”(150) At the same time he is securing his own position by feeding on Rajani’s secrets. The story flirts with a discussion of art and morality, suggesting that art might be a work of “holiness mimed by a sinner”(142) – and “mimed” might be the key word. “On the Ridge” (Porter 1971a: 69-82) has a narrator who obtains a manuscript in which a writer tells how as a young teacher he lived in a house with a twelve-year-old who possessed “the genius or insanity of evil” (77) and who stripped naked when he was to receive a flogging. The writer murders the boy and enters into an affair with the boy’s mother – or rather he “participate[s] in his own seduction by the murdered boy’s mother,” (80) even though her body is “of a sort [he] should never have chosen.” (80) He assumes heterosexual disguise after killing the true object of desire, the naked boy, made responsible and evil. The writer is dead but it is clear that the narrator will expose him – as a murderer. Even “At Aunt Sophia’s,”(Porter 1962: 72-84) which at first glance would seem to have nothing to do with paedophilia, has an adult narrator looking back at his/the male body becoming pubescent and barely disguising what was in the past, which is to say in the telling present, his sexual interest in another boy. These are only the more obvious examples. More could be said of stories in which children are made malevolent and sexually knowing, stories that ask readers to accept that lies are justified if they preserve good manners, stories which ridicule homosexuals so that their narrators will seem normal, healthy heterosexuals, or stories which seek narrative resolution by exposing a sordid secret that had been hidden by a respectable surface. More could be said of the many stories that use a world-weary narrative perspective, a perspective that most Porter readers mistake for ruthless honesty, to intimate that what humans do to and with each other sexually is of no consequence.
In Porter’s first novel, A Handful of Pennies1, sex justifies itself as a bodily imperative, even if the body is also responsible for corruption. The Australians working for the Occupying Forces in Japan (where Porter himself spent two years as a schoolmaster) are early versions of a figure now familiar to readers of Australian fiction set in ” Asia “: Westerners for whom the East confirms uncertainties and relaxes morals. While Porter appears to be describing this process, he is also arguing that the meeting of East and West shows moral norms to be no more than hypocritical social ritual. Into this argument he introduces Maxie Glenn, boy lover to Padre Hamilton, as one of his non-innocents: “For the youth, too mature physically, the Padre’s lesson had been undisturbingly coarse because, though an umpimpled adolescence gave him an ethereal air, Maxie Glenn was coarse also.” (Lord 1980:149) The narrator goes further, making Maxie conscious of his complicity: “Better than those who would forgive him and not the Padre he knew the complicity had been dual.” (152) What appears to be a novel about reciprocal cross-cultural exploitation during the Occupation is also a novel about reciprocal sexual exploitation, including that between adults and minors. The novel does not simply resist judging its reverend paedophile; it solicits sympathy for him. Expelled from Japan, Padre Hamilton stands in his farewell party, hoping desperately that the boy will look at him one last time, and is transformed into a victim: “No man does anything consciously for the last time without a feeling of sadness; to be forced to abandon a body of which one has not tired at least quadruples this sorrow.” (152) As he is being driven to the airport Hamilton is distracted by “a striking Oriental youth.” (163) Paula Groot, sent home not so much because she had an affair with a Japanese man but because she contracted syphilis, also notices the youth, and then the two sit side by side on the plane. The effect of this is to equalise them and thereby normalise Hamilton ‘s behaviour. What might appear to be a detached narrative perspective exposes itself as a more calculated and more cynical act.
The Tilted Cross is set in colonial Van Diemen’s Land, a penal world where manners, covering brutality and venality, are more important than morals. Porter’s prefatory note explaining that the novel is based on the historical convict, Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, could be read as a decoy. Porter’s Wainewright, Vaneleigh, certainly has the moral cynicism of many a Porter protagonist, but he is not the one who attracts narrative interest. This is directed to the beautifully male Queely Sheill. Indeed The Tilted Crossmight be worth investigating as an exercise in homoerotic displacement since the sexual interest taken in Queely by Lady Rose Knight and Lady Asnetha Sleep might well reflect the narrator’s interest.2The narrator is always looking at him, handsome as a god (23), and they are always trying to bed him. Lady Asnetha succeeds. Queely, whose innocence is so natural as to make him “incapable of acting” (126) and therefore inculpable, whose sexuality is so instinctive as to be unregulated, thinks it a kindness to fornicate with her since she is a cripple and wants it so much. At the same time, Porter’s description of sexual passion is, characteristically, shadowed by a distrust of the body: sexual intercourse is imaged in terms of rage and, perversely, crucifixion. Intercourse is “the interlocked affront and striving and battle of flesh.”(100) For Queely it is “a crucifixion hedged with tears.mortality preserving itself in the forgetfulness that is too instantly mortal” (100) and consequently “his violence and frenzy were not those of the one who hungers but of the one who is sacrificed.” (100) In thus providing Asnetha with his pity, Queely offends Vaneleigh’s doctrine of mistrust: “Sympathy buys shame,” (31) and “You’ll suffer, as I did, not because you erred, but because you trusted.” (111) Vaneleigh’s moral cynicism extends into his art. As he prepares to paint Lady Knight’s portrait, he voices a thought that will later occur to the narrator of The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony : “If what was sought turned out to be a lie, that was what he and his pencil would find and manufacture into a truth.”(53) This sits uncomfortably with the fact that Queely is falsely condemned when Teapot, the thirteen-year-old black servant of Lady Asnetha, who can lie like truth, accuses him of theft. Teapot is written in a manner that emphasises his knowing sexuality: he denounces Queely so as to preserve his own role as Lady Asnetha’s toy and entertains the idea of sex with Polidorio Smith, the homosexual actor, so as to acquire a toy of his own. He is yet another of Porter’s child monsters.
While in prison Queely conducts himself with Christ-like forgiveness and forebearance, though Porter’s gestures towards the Christifiction of Queely are, I think, cynical. They are used to align religion with hyprocrisy. Adrian Mitchell has argued that: “The point is not in the parody, the inverted Christian myth and morality, but in inversion itself.” (4) I would suggest that, in this case, pointlessness is the point: the allusions disempower Christian morality. While this might appear to be in keeping with the novel’s vision of a penal and venal hell, it also has the effect of neutralising any position that might want to make distinctions of kind and degree in regard to sexual behaviour (Porter’s writing very often hides its sexual agenda behind its social criticism). This is, after all, a book that has made church bells complicit with ankle-chains: “Sunday in Hobart Town bore its starveling resemblance to Sunday in the London which had exported to it the chimes of church bells along with the chimes of ankle-chains, the one to accompany and uplift duplicity, the other to accompany and weigh down obscenity.” (137) When the dying Queely says “Queely thirsts,” (256), this is taken over by the shadows in his mind, the shadows of “the blasphemous and filthy” (256) feasting off his death. Among those shadows is “the undying god who grants all – Death.”(257) As Queely prays for those who condemned him, Porter reintroduces his titular image of “The Cross tilted to fall.” (257) Part of the inversion Mitchell describes lies in the fact that Queely dies at Christmas, but Porter does not confine himself to this. Immediately after Queely’s death, he inverts the story of the Annunciation. Recounting how Asnetha’s maid has fallen pregnant, he remarks: “Ferris the groom was suspected of being the Welsh hussy’s Holy Ghost, but unjustly, for he was too experienced a man, and had fornicated with too many women, to be so carelessly immoral.”(261) Porter also has his own take on the Incarnation, making Queely’s innocent carnality so edible that it assumes the status of a eucharist:
So, to him, carnality was carnality. It had not extra value for him since his beauty had never let it fall into irritating disuse. He felt he knew when the wine and bread of his body could not be denied. (94-95)
But denied it is, and by the writing: the beautiful Queely is disfigured and dies. If The Tilted Cross were simply a story about how a moral innocent is sacrified so that society can feed its hyprocrisy, it does not need to have Queely break his leg in an escape attempt, have the leg turn gangrenous, have the leg amputated, and have the beautiful man become “the one legged ugly man.”(255) The beauty of innocence is, through Queely’s death, destroyed and secrecy is saved. It is a process that eerily fulfils the description of Queely entering Asnetha, that “monstrous caricature of Eurydice” (Mitchell 6): “With eyes closed, mouths agape and askew, brows plaited in tameless agony of expression, the deathmask-in-life of consummation, they were to destroy what had infuriated them.” (100) This is a book that so associates sexuality with Eurydice’s underworld that it wants to kill love. It might be social criticism, a portrait of a society that has tilted the cross so that it is ready to fall. It might also be that it is the novel itself that tilts the cross.
According to Gavin Ogilvie, the least unbelievable character in The Right Thing, “[t]he innocent are always guilty.” (100) In this novel Porter mixes a third-person narration of the Olgivies, who think themselves a pastoral aristocracy, with the first-person diary entries of the prodigal Gavin (who has worked in London as an actor and been a homosexual). The effect is unconvincing. In the third-person narration the women speak as if they are performing in a competition for Bette Davis impersonators, while the young lovers, Angus Olgivie and Maureen O’Connell, are simply the instruments of an unintended and unmarried pregnancy, a sexual shame that has to be expelled in the interests of property and propriety (something that is achieved, to the profound satisfaction of the Olgivies, when Maureen tips herself over a cliff). Gavin’s diaries are more persuasive, particularly when he is recording how his younger nephew, Alastair, confesses to having had sex with men – though “confess” is not the right word since Gavin implies that Alastair’s confession is an exercise in seduction. Gavin (so he says) halts the boy’s “game.” (162) This is not because Gavin disapproves of boys having sex with men. It is because he is another watcher: having been literally an actor, he maintains that a good society depends on “playing,” on “doing the right thing.” (107). When he saw the slums of Colombo just before he was himself sexually initiated by a dark and polished older man, he recognised that “[e]vents do not change man; they merely unmask him.” (103) It is worth noting that his account once again links sexual satisfaction to putrefaction. At Colombo too, while he is watching little girls going into his ship “where Hindoo and Pakistani and Goanese men waited randily to appease themselves,” (112) he decides that moral codes are only cultural habits. He is not, then, a moral voice: that role is reserved for and satirised in Maureen’s friend, Elvira. After the suicide, Elvira sets out to shoot Angus, but kills Alastair by mistake. The novel, as published, ends: “She had, nevertheless, done the right thing.” (264) This is the narrator’s comment; the character does not know Alastair’s secret. The extraordinary thing about The Right Thing is that Alastair barely appears in it yet the whole story is designed to murder him. In ethical and narrative terms his death functions, not as a wrong, but as a propitiatory sacrifice: it justifies those who believe “the right thing” is good performance.
If my reading gives proper respect to Porter’s texts, then clearly the discussion within and about Hal Porter: Man of Many Parts is a distraction. It creates the false impression that Lord gave us the knowledge of Porter’s evil, when in fact it is Porter himself who offers, however furtively, this knowledge to his reader. Moreover, by imagining paedophilia as an isolable and objective action, the discussion tends to remove it from narrative. Porter’s texts – and here I am deliberately merging autobiography and fiction on the grounds that they employ the same fictive strategies – permit a reader to return paedophilia to narrative and examine how it functions within stories that make a virtue of secrecy even as they evacuate those notions of goodness and responsibility that make virtue credible. Porter’s is, after all, a writing of corruption. Its originary moment is the death of the mother, the moment that contains The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony, a book that is, as it were, written over her corpse, a book that explicitly identifies her death with the death of God and the death of love (254), a book in which the narrator finally calls himself “the dead one.” (255) It is possible that Porter’s is a narrative that has looked so long at corruption that it feels no remorse as it turns children into lampshades.
Noel Rowe teaches Australian Literature at the University of Sydney. He is the author of Next to Nothing (Vagabond Press 2004) and the editor, with Vivian Smith, of Windchimes: Asia in Australian Poetry (Pandanus Books 2006).
1. Although the novel was originally published by Angus & Robertson in 1958, I am using the revised version printed in Lord’s Hal Porter. It is the version most conveniently available and Porter’s revisions do not affect my reading.
2.This is not meant to imply any identification of paedophilia with homosexuality. My argument is restricted to Porter’s writing, where homosexuality and paedophilia are equally subjects treated with secrecies and deferrals.
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———— Hal Porter: Man of Many Parts, Sydney : Random House, 1993.
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——— “Hal Porter”. In Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol 260: Australian Writers 1915-1950. Ed. Selina Samuels (Detroit: Gale, 2002), 295-306.
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———- The Tilted Cross, London : Faber and Faber, 1961.
———- A Bachelor’s Children, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1962.
———- The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony, London : Faber and Faber, 1986. [First published, Faber and Faber, 1963.]
———- The Cats of Venice, Sydney : Angus & Robertson, 1965.
———- Mr Butterfry and other Tales of New Japan, Sydney : Angus & Robertson, 1970.
———- 1971a Selected Stories, ed. Leonie Kramer, Sydney : Angus & Robertson, 1971.
———- 1971b The Right Thing, Adelaide : Rigby, 1971.
———- “Gavin’s Diary: An Unused Last Chapter of The Right Thing “, Southerly 33.iv.1973, 355-63.
———- Fredo Fuss Love Life, Sydney : Angus & Robertson, 1974.
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