Jennifer Maiden, The Cuckold and the Vampires: An essay on some aspects of conservative manipulation of art and literature, including experimental, and the conservatives’ creation of conflict (Quemar Press 2020)
This essay opens with a story about the great Colombian novelist and Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez:
When Márquez realised that the new avant-garde periodical that was serialising his novel was a project of the CIA, he wrote to his friend, the editor, that he was withdrawing the work and felt like a ‘cuckold’. *
Hence the cuckold in the essay’s title. The titular vampires come from a traditional tale in which a visitor to a village suspects the presence of a vampire, only to discover that all the villagers are vampires. For Márquez, as Maiden spells it out, the ‘betrayal was not confined to that particular incident, but continued to pervade his sense of hope and his sense of self-trust for the rest of his life’.
That opening does three things. First, it provides a striking and incontestable example of reactionary political forces exerting influence and having a destructive effect on creative enterprise. It’s one of many in the essay. Others include the funding of Australia’s Quadrant and the promotion of abstract expressionist art during the Cold War. The body of the essay gives many examples of less tangible kinds of manipulation as well, including the CIA’s Cord Meyer’s injunction to ‘court the compatible left’ – that is, to win leftist and liberal artists and writers over as propagators of the CIA’s positions.
Second, the opening provides a gloss on one of Maiden’s poems, in this case ‘What if all the village were vampires?’ from The Espionage Act (Quemar 2020, my blog post here). It’s one of many such glosses that I expect will make the essay indispensable to scholars of Maiden’s poetry. Several of Maiden’s poems are quoted in part or in full in the body of the essay..
And third, in the manner of its telling, it helps to define the tone and the ideal readership of the essay. Márquez appears without personal names or any orientating descriptors. We are expected to know who Márquez is, or rather which Márquez is meant – the Wikipedia disambiguation entry for ‘Márquez’ lists hundreds of people. It’s an essay for people who are reasonably well read in modern literature and, given that the first page mentions, in passing, the United Fruit massacre, Simón Bolivar and Fidel Castro, they are also reasonably well informed about Latin American (and by implication other) struggles against capitalism.
The essay that follows ranges widely, and sometimes wildly, over the cultural landscape and over the centuries. It covers personal experiences that writers generally don’t talk about in public: books pulped without the author’s permission, outrageous copyright arrangements, duplicity on the part of critics. Many of the stories are told without naming names, but in most of these cases the anonymity is skin deep. There are plenty of AustLit anecdotes, including a personal spin on well known ones such as A D Hope’s famous dismissal of Patrick White’s The Tree of Man, and direct reports of Maiden’s own experience. There are excursions into literary criticism – including of Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and Henry James. The essay takes issue with some strands of feminism, going back to fifteenth century France for an example of a proto-feminist whose writings served the interests of the ruling class, and is troubled by conservative patronage’s current ‘predilection for ostentatiously supporting Indigenous and Women’s art, often both together’.
One of the essay’s key points is the need to look beyond the ‘microcosm’ to the ‘macrocosm’. The microcosm is the detail of interpersonal relations; the macrocosm is the broad political forces behind the personal interactions. For example, when talking about the early death from substance abuse of John Forbes, an outstanding Australian poet whom Maiden classifies as of the left, she rejects the romantic notion of the self-destructive poet:
The suicidal depression in substance addiction of some left-wing artists … seems to me clearly related to their internalisation of right-wing social pressures to succeed, and an inability to disentangle those pressures from the valuation of their art – and, indeed, their lives. It’s a lethal business. The nature of competition and criticism in capitalist art has the characteristics of a battlefield, and drugs can seem the only method to tolerate it. There appears to the artist no issue of long-term survival, only a short-term negotiation and acceptance of the microcosm. Drugs provide the conflicting comforts of temporary transcendence, tunnel-vision and indifference all at once. They are a short-cut to the creation of the type of intoxicated persona that the Right Wing insists is the hallmark of art. And they also destroy the artist’s own critical faculty, making the artist more dependent on external right-wing critical criteria.(pages 36–37)
That phrase, ‘It’s a lethal business’, recurs often. The microcosm–macrocosm shift is crucial, Maiden argues, when we look at conflict among artists and writers. How much of it is encouraged, if not confected, by the forces of reaction in order to defang creativity? The essay sails close to just that sort of conflict at times, though even when Maiden is describing how a particular artist or art movement has been used by the right-wing, she generally makes it clear that it’s not the artist or the movement she is criticising.
I doubt if anyone will read this book nodding agreement all the way. I was perplexed by the argument that only right-wingers invoke Marx any more, and though I’m interested to learn that the term ‘conspiracy theory’ was first developed by the right to dismiss concerns abut the assassination of John F Kennedy, I can’t agree that the term isn’t appropriate for, say, Pizzagate and the Great Replacement.
But for anyone who agrees with Jennifer Maiden’s contention that writers and readers who think of themselves as ‘non-political’ are very likely to be conservative or reactionary, this essay is a lively and challenging read. For anyone interested in her poetry and/or the circumstances in which poets have worked and been published in Australia over the last half century, it’s richly informative.
A small gripe: I was desperate for some white space as I read The Cuckold and the Vampires. I need an indent or a half-line space between long paragraphs. I need white space to mark a new phase of an essay-argument. If poetry is quoted at length, I need the actual line breaks rather than slashes to show where they ought to be. My eyes need these occasional rests, and my (ageing) brain works better when my eyes are rested.
The Cuckold and the Vampires is the sixth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.