Journey Without Arrival

Journey Without Arrival: The Life and Writing of Vincent Buckley by John McLaren. Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2009, $39.95.

The Melbourne poet, critic and academic Vincent Buckley, who died in 1988, was a frequent contributor to Quadrant over the decades, with ten poems, fifteen articles (including one called “The Strange Personality of Christ”) and three book reviews. He was religious with mystical leanings, took a firm anti-totalitarian stance in politics, and wrote poetry in a modernist style. Many people were attracted by his distinctive cast of mind, and he came to have almost cult status in certain Melbourne circles. He needs a biographer who can understand his wide range of interests, as little in his background accounted for his unique personal style. 

John McLaren’s biography provides a competent account of the main events of his life. As much of the material in the book comes from his published writings, including his autobiographical memoir Cutting Green Hay, it is the new material here—on his two marriages, intrigues in the Melbourne English Department, and his various sojourns overseas—which is most helpful in understanding him. The reader of the book is gripped by the unfolding of the main dramas of his life. 

But there are major problems with this biography. Instead of setting out Buckley’s life and writing, and letting readers judge for themselves, McLaren constantly intrudes his own position, which is often opposed to Buckley’s. The first time he mentions a Buckley poem, an unpublished one, he comments, after quoting only a few snippets: “The language of piety and pathos gets in the way of the poem’s attempt to imagine Tarsisius in either his own time or ours, and therefore prevents him from opening a conversation with either time.” What can the reader make of this? A biographer’s role is not to engage in extended lit crit. After almost every poem or book of Buckley’s is mentioned, McLaren makes a derogatory comment, or hauls in another critic to do it. To capture his subject from the inside a biographer needs to be sympathetic, without being supine.

Near the end of the book, when dealing with the 1970s when literary theory had come into vogue, McLaren writes:

Buckley dismissed as absurd the suggestion that reading is an entry into dialogue with the author, both because the author cannot respond and because the strength of the work will overwhelm any response to it. This rejection of responsive criticism and social engagement with literature not only denies Leavis, but casts doubt on Buckley’s own vocation of furthering the world’s redemption by engaging with society and the natural world through his writing. Engagement is dialogue.

McLaren does not understand that Buckley is here intelligently arguing against the view of the deconstructionists and other theorists that the reader is equal to the author. To read a dead author is a quite different process from having a conversation (dialogue) with a live interlocutor; Buckley understands this but McLaren does not. McLaren believes that in this biography he is having a dialogue with Buckley as an equal or even as a superior, and so can parade his own views, and second-guess Buckley. The notion that in his life Buckley was against dialogue is risible—he spent a good deal of his time responding in print and in daily conversation to the ideas of others.

The pet idea that McLaren repeatedly intrudes is found in the last sentence of the above quotation. He is an Old Left social realist who believes that literature exists to be mined for its socio-political content. Buckley explicitly rejected this view early in his career, and was subsequently not interested in it. But McLaren keeps coming back to it, even though it is irrelevant to Buckley’s work. In one of his (anti)political poems Buckley made his view on this matter clear: 

And hard-faced men, who beat the drum
To call me to this cause or that,
Those heirs of someone else’s tomb,
Can’t see the sweeter work I’m at,
The building of the honeycomb.                                     

For most of his life the things that energised Buckley were religion, poetry, analysis of literature and involvement in public affairs. But it is in these areas that McLaren’s ear is unresponsive to the resonances and nuances. As a secular humanist himself, McLaren describes Buckley as a Christian humanist, as though both are similar, except that Buckley had an additional metaphysical superstructure. Buckley was a modernist, but to describe him as a humanist does not help us to understand him—his cast of mind was quite different. He naturally absorbed the main strands of Enlightenment thought, but his Irish and Catholic pessimism precluded the utopian belief that man was the measure of all things and unaided could establish a paradise on earth.

McLaren struggles to explain the Melbourne University Apostolate and its emphasis on the Incarnation. Up to the 1950s Catholicism had been too otherworldy—it overemphasised the desire for instant personal transcendence, the desire to escape the world and go straight to God the Father (like a bird seeking to escape its cage) and to implore His direct comfort and assistance in this world. This is the Manichean or Jansenist heresy, with its premature emphasis on Resurrection. Incarnational theology focused on working gradually through and with the matter of the world, by joining with Christ’s action in this life to ultimately work towards the parousia. There is no disjunction in this view between the world and the transcending of it. McLaren’s studied avoidance of theological terms means he can’t explain this.

McLaren is similarly unsympathetic to Buckley’s politics, liberally throwing around labels like “anti-Communist” and “Cold War”, which in the mind of the hard Left have derogatory connotations. He paints Buckley as an otherwise decent man with one strange and disfiguring ailment—anticommunism. But it is much more enlightening to see Buckley as he saw himself, as anti-totalitarian, or anti-totalist, that is, opposed to any ideology or political group which manoeuvres to assume total power in order to impose its views on those under its control. Buckley favoured freedom and pluralism. This also explains why Buckley in the 1970s opposed those who espoused totalist literary theories and who tried to take over English departments and enforce rigid conformity. In Buckley’s mind it was all of a piece, the same forma mentis. McLaren’s limiting “anti-Communist” mantra can’t explain this.

It can’t for the same reason explain the role Buckley took in Victorian Labor politics. Buckley resolutely opposed the Bill Hartley Socialist Left clique which took over the Victorian ALP branch and ruthlessly enforced its far-Left ideology, expelling decent parliamentarians like Jack Galbally and Captain Benson. McLaren devotes no space to explaining to the reader the tyrannical leadership of the Victorian ALP, which Buckley and others courageously opposed, and whose overthrow eventually made possible federal and Victorian Labor governments. Buckley’s political activities are made to seem trivial and inexplicable in this book because this context is never explained. To explain the context would mean condemning the Left, and that is a road down which John McLaren never goes.

Instead McLaren spends much time berating the supposedly baleful influence on Buckley of Dr Knopfel-macher and the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom, publisher of Quadrant. This is McLaren’s irrelevant obsession, not Buckley’s. McLaren is an ideological warrior continuing to wage long-lost battles, still defending that bright chimera of the unreconstructed Left, reformed communism. The problem at the time was Bill Hartley, not Dr Knopfelmacher. McLaren overemphasises the influence Dr Knopelmacher had on Buckley. He writes of events circa 1960: “Buckley’s change in his approach to political issues was due to the influence Frank Knopfelmacher came to exercise over him.” This is untrue. Buckley was anti-totalist and anticommunist well before he knew Knopfelmacher and he didn’t change. He was always his own man and used his own arguments.

A biography should bring the subject to life. Not enough time is spent in this book on what Vincent Buckley was like, in contrast to the reams of lit crit regurgitations we are offered. The balance is wrong. In everyday life Buckley had a lightness of being which is not evident here. In company he delighted in what he called “elevated gossip” and could be incomparably witty. One little snippet whets the appetite for more anecdotes of his humour. About to make her first Confession, his daughter Cait confided her worries to him:

“I don’t have anything to confess.”
“Then tell a lie.”
“But that would be a sin.”
“There you are.”  

His voice had a unique cadence and his mind did not run on the usual lines. More time could have been spent, for example, getting McLaren’s long list of interviewees to describe his lecturing style and the effect it had on audiences. There is too little on Buckley’s friendships, such as that with James McAuley, with whom Buckley had a close but tense relationship as part coeval (both were anti-totalist Catholic poets) but part rival.

In the biography Buckley comes across more as querulous, argumentative, too much given to standing on his dignity, neurotic, anxiety-ridden, cantankerous. There is a part truth in all this, but it produces a distorted portrait. His talent for constant self-deprecation is not evident here. This is not the Buckley most people knew. Why was he attractive to so many people? McLaren’s picture, in which he emerges as somewhat weird and non-mainstream, can’t explain this.

Buckley’s earlier attachment to Catholicism, Ireland, literary analysis and politics waned considerably in his later years, as this book’s title suggests. This makes his autobiography Cutting Green Hay difficult to use as evidence, as Buckley wrote it when disenchanted with his earlier passions, and this disenchantment is sometimes retrojected onto the past. Buckley surprisingly wrote that his time at Cambridge in the mid-1950s “purged me of Leavisism and enabled me to survive it”. McLaren is right to point out the influence of Leavis on Buckley’s critical writing from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. He published regularly in the Leavisite journal the Melbourne Critical Review. It is more likely he moved away from Leavis’s influence when the Leavisites began to take over the Melbourne English Department.

The volume Last Poems shows the world darkly closing in on him, as all he had left was his poetry and his family. His poetry had always shown him as preternaturally sensitive to the evanescent shapes, sounds, smells and atmosphere of a particular moment or incident, and how it registered on his nerve-ends. This faculty remained but now concentrated on his own body, as his poetry inspects its own inner workings and failings. Illness heightened his sense of death, always a presence in his poetry:

Catholics, we were trained for it,
the maze of words, the candles
unrolled from years of tissue paper
for this moment, the petite firm
forward-leaning priestly movements,
necessary as the dying itself.

McLaren’s book includes a striking passage, which I had not come across before, from James McAuley, warning Buckley of the weaknesses of current modernist poetry, which McAuley dismisses as a

series of twitchings simulating vitality, spasms of intellectual violence, incoherent complexities, unclued scrawls, nauseating coagulates and colloids of opaque imagery, mere Rohrschach blots encountering the reader’s mind in a haphazardly suggestive way.

This helps us understand the motivation behind the Ern Malley hoax.

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