Essays (book reviews)

The Error of My Ways
by Edward Colless
(Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, 1995)




I was honoured when Ted (Edward to his friends) Colless asked me to launch this book – his first book – The Error of My Ways. Like many avid readers of Ted’s pieces and essays – and I have been an avid reader since the late 1970s – I waited a long time for this book to appear. The other day, I was trying to exhort a friend who was not familiar with Ted’s work to buy this book and read it. She asked me two questions: “Well, what kind of writer is he?”; and “So what does he write about?” I found these two seemingly simple, straightforward questions astonishingly hard to answer. But, having given it some thought, I think this is what I would say.


What kind of writer is he? That’s a curly one. I would have to answer it indirectly, by saying how I first encountered his work. In the late ‘70s, I truly believe that a new kind of writing began to appear in this country of Australia. It had something to do with art criticism, something to do with philosophy, something to with film studies, something to do with modern fiction and biography and autobiography, something to do with fashion and theory, as well as a certain intoxicated experience of everyday life. But it was a style of writing that could not be pigeonholed as any one of these things alone.


In my view, since the ‘70s, we have seen the rise of what I could grandly but quite seriously call a Lost Generation of local writers (and maybe more than one such generation, in the wake of this first). When I started reading passionate, reflective pieces about the arts and culture in the late ‘70s, it wasn’t, in the first and primal instance, Robert Hughes I was reading and liking, or Tom Wolfe, or even Roland Barthes. It was Ted, and Meaghan Morris, and George Alexander, and Liz Grosz. Back then, they were writing in small magazines that you would be lucky to find in any university library today. And things have not always improved for these great writers. I call them, and those that followed their example, a Lost Generation because, in my view, they have never been properly embraced by our literary world. They have written books, but these books have tended to be published by art galleries, or overseas presses, or self-published – rather than be snapped up and put out by our major Australian publishers. But I hope this is all changing and – if it is – I am sure that this book by Ted will have something to do with the change.


What does Ted write about? Another hard question. In the introduction, Ted reflects that the point or pretext he starts from – an artwork, a film, a conversation, an incident, something on TV – often recedes or gets lost as he writes. He tells us that he becomes aware of a mass of amorphous sensations – memories, connections, emotions – and it is these sensations that he must nut out, and to which he must give some literary form. This is what he calls the error of his way, the wayward movement of writing itself as it struggles to express something of which it is never quite sure.


Reading this book, I recalled a debate that raged in the art world about ten years ago – a sore debate that has in fact never quite gone away. It was a debate in the small, now defunct magazines we all wrote for then: about the role of art criticism or art writing in relation to actual works of art. The conservatives who ruled the newspaper columns then, and mostly still rule them now, preached and boomed to us that writing must be the servant of art. It must be patient, descriptive, modest. It must not make too many wild associations or connections. At the other extreme of this debate, there were those young things who proudly decided to treat all art as mere raw material for flights of writing or theorising.


Ted’s book reminds me of this debate because – apart from the marvellous and mysterious cover photograph by Jane Burton which graces its cover – it is a book without images. Yet Ted’s work offers us a third way, a third path between these paranoid, aggressive options of either art-as-master or writing-as-master. Whatever Ted starts from – a painting or a quotation or a discarded snapshot – he conjures for us a parallel journey, a companion-piece. He takes off into all sorts of places and invents his own imaginary worlds; but there is still an alchemical correspondence between the error of his ways and the artistic reality from which he starts. This is the compliment, the gift which truly poetic writing always gives to the poetic works that it loves and respects.


I remember now a comment from Meaghan Morris on the art criticism of Jean-François Lyotard. She suggested that, even when she did not know the art that he was writing about, or even when she hated the art he was writing about, she found herself seduced, drawn in – because he had the ability to light it up and invest it with a fabulous significance. I find this kind of fabulous significance on every page of The Error of My Ways.


There is a Gothic cast to this book, sometimes a humorous, mock-Gothic cast: there are ghosts, apparitions, doppelgängers, murderous desires and delightful, unspeakable perversions haunting every one of these essays. What I personally love in Ted’s writing is what the Surrealists prized as the inner poetic voice. Reading all these essays and fictions from a fifteen-year span, certain images or phantasms started to swirl before me. They are something like the themes or motifs of Ted’s work, at least as I see or construe them. On its back cover, I dared to enumerate these motifs – what I call Ted’s deep obsessions – thusly: “… the intractable strangeness of the world, the riddle of personal identity, and the unquenchable vagaries of erotic desire”.


And now, looking again at Jane Burton’s cover image with these themes in my mind, I realise that this a book that you really can tell by its cover.


So here’s looking at you, Ted – and I wish you every success with this terrific book.


© Adrian Martin December 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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