Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


Damaged Men
The precarious lives of James McAuley and Harold Stewart
By Michael Ackland
Allan & Unwin,Sydney,2001

This handsome book explores the lives and works of two important Australian poets. Both men were hugely ambitious poetically, and shared many ideas about poetry, and both consciously created lives far removed from their backgrounds. The lives of both were fundamentally shaped by their religious experiences: McAuley was a convert to Catholicism, and Stewart embraced Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. Despite this divergence, their lives remain linked because of the execution of the Ern Malley hoax.

The early chapters of the book detail the personal and educational backgrounds of the two men. They met as students at Fort Street High School, a Sydney selective school that has produced an inordinate number of prominent Australians. Both enrolled at the University of Sydney, McAuley to achieve significant academic success (but he was less successful than he desired), Stewart to soon leave, finding himself too restricted by the limitations of undergraduate study.

The life of McAuley unfolds in some senses as very average: youthful ambition and excess giving way to family life and a bureaucratic and academic career. Central to McAuley's later life however, is his adoption of a particularly tortured Catholic faith, and his deep involvement in right-wing Catholic politics. Deeply conservative in many senses, McAuley's life displayed a divergence of the public and private. Ackland points out, not at all pruriently, that McAuley was a serious drinker and womaniser. Perhaps a different book devoted entirely to McAuley could have given more insight into the psychology and spirituality of this troubled man.

This brings me to the central problem with this book. Ackland apparently came to the concept of the joint biography after initially conceiving a biography of McAuley, but on researching McAuley found Stewart repeatedly appearing in McAuley's life. Each man, however could do with a biography in his own right.

The unbreakable link, the event that damaged McAuley and Stewart, was the Ern Malley hoax, an event that does not reflect well on any of those involved, and which is thankfully dealt with quite briefly in the book. Max Harris, prominent Australian modernist poet and editor, was persuaded to publish poems that Ern Malley, an untutored genius had purportedly produced. The poems were pastiches written by McAuley and Stewart in the style Harris championed, a style despised by them. Harris was naïve and arrogant to accept the Ern Malley poems. Whether Harris deserved the passion the hoaxers directed against him is a matter that cannot now be judged. The hoax damaged Harris personally and professionally, and pandered to the very worst of Australian philistinism. This was not at all what McAuley and Stewart could have had in mind. It is an ironic punishment for the legacies of the two men that Ern Malley is anthologised as much as McAuley and more than Stewart in collections of modern Australian poetry.

Of most interest to readers of this review, however, will be the life and works of Harold Stewart. Stewart's life was precarious. Not for him the good degree, the wife and children, the academic career. Stewart despised politics and was devoted to his art, his poetry. His escape from formal education did not stop his devotion to learning; from aesthetics and literature, eastern philosophy, especially Daoism and the philosophy of the "Traditionalists" who especially recommended Jodo Shinshu Buddhism as the religious path suitable for Westerners. Stewart came to disdain everything Australian and his interests led him to move to Kyoto where he lived and worked from 1966.

Ackland narrates the arc of Stewart's life in Japan in the latter chapters of the book, alternating with chapters on McAuley. Stewart's life in Kyoto was not easy. He had no ready means of support. Royalties from his literary work were an important source of income, but were always small, and only in his later years was he awarded an Australia Council Fellowship - a government grant for a distinguished artist. He seems to have supported himself by using his local knowledge to act as an agent for an antiques dealer and received money from a Swiss patron. He never acquired much Japanese.

Despite all this, Stewart continued to work, producing his major work, "By the Old Walls of Kyoto", his major unpublished work "Autumn Landscape Roll", collaborating with Prof. Hisao Inagaki in the writing of the latter's wonderful and important translations of the Three Pure Land Sutras and other works.

Ackland deals kindly with Stewart's sexuality and romantic life, and especially with his difficult relationship with Ueshima Maasaaki, the love of Stewart's life. He is less sympathetic in detailing Stewart's struggles to support himself and beyond a bare narrative does not offer much insight into Stewart's spiritual search. Ackland writes as a well-disposed intellectual, but one with little insight into Buddhist and Jodo Shinshu spirituality.

The arc of Harold Stewart's life, his poems like jewels embedded in the substance of that life, is to me a beautiful exposition of the spiritual life of a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist. The difficulties of Stewart's life and character as laid out by Ackland, his ambition, his pride (not unjustified) in his hard-won autodidactic knowledge, his messy means of making money, his problematic dealings with his long-term landlady are all as one with a life of spiritual search, finally, a life of the Nembutsu, a life that inspires joy and gives hope. The mixture of the intimate involvement with the dust of everyday life with the intimate involvement with the Nembutsu is the life of a bonbu, an ordinary being of deep karmic passions, embraced by the love of Amida. Stewart's life is important especially to Western converts to Jodo Shinshu as an example of a way of living the life of the Nembutsu.

Michael Ackland is to be congratulated for the fine work he has produced. I hope that this book will stimulate further interest in the life and work of Harold Stewart and in particular will stimulate interest in the publication and re-publication of his works, poetry of beauty and value steeped in Buddhist teachings.

Mark Healsmith

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