Patrick White’s Centenary: Australian Monolith, Explorer of the Inner Desert.

208 miles southwest of Alice Springs, in Australia’s Northern Territory, somewhat to the west and south of the dead center of the continent, where, were it a body, its heart would beat forth a circulation of scorching rocks and pebbles, rises Uluru, the sandstone monolith called Ayers Rock. Its 1142 vertical feet and 5.8 mile circumference have been home to the creator gods of the Anangu people for so far back in time as to yield time’s immateriality. Those who bandy the notion of history call its painted caves prehistoric. For those to whom it remains sacred, the only temporal frame with which to regard it at all it is the dreamtime. One legend has it that the Rock was originally an ocean on whose shores a great battle was fought. In protest, the earth itself rose up, and has remained. This accounts for the known parts. Its unknown parts extend, by some estimates, as much as 20,000 feet below the gibbers plain.

Uluru/Ayers Rock is the most recognizable image of the antipodean world, outstripping Sydney’s opera house, the fjords of New Zealand, and koala bears. The Cyclopean feature on the face of the desert defining the Australian interior. The people of Australia – not the People of the dreamtime, but the immigrants, descendents of European settlers and British penal colony overseers, those who, in the words of Patrick White’s Voss, “huddle” along the coast – live out their time either turning from or turning toward this 529,000 square miles of emptiness glaring out from the heart of the continent.

Portrait of Patrick White by Brett Whiteley

Patrick White was one who turned toward. His fiction rises, forbidding, beautiful, from the desert we all must cross who would count ourselves among the Living. As much as any writer of the twentieth century, he knew that the great expanse of emptiness must be explored, for emptiness is not nothingness but the only place from which we can know ourselves. And death, in the desert or the suburbs, is not life’s greatest peril. This distinction goes to Mediocrity. Listen to  this passage from The Aunt’s Story: The unmarried Theodora Goodman has just had a transcendent and wordless spiritual exchange with a Greek cellist, and receives a letter from her sister, Fanny:

About this time Fanny wrote to say it was going to happen at last. When I was so afraid, dear Theodora, Fanny wrote. But  Fanny had made of fear a fussy trimming. Emotions as deep as fear could not exist in the Parrotts’ elegant country house, in spite of the fact that Mr. Buchanan’s brains had once littered the floor. Fanny’s fear was seldom more than misgiving. If I were barren, Fanny had said. But there remained all the material advantages, blue velvet curtains in the boudoir, and kidneys in the silver chafing dish. Although her plump pout often protested, her predicament was not a frightening one. Then it happened at last. I am going to have a baby, Fanny said. She felt that perhaps she ought to cry, and did. She relaxed, and thought with tenderness of the tyranny she would exercise.

‘I must take care of myself,’ she said. ‘Perhaps I shall send for Theodora, to help about the house.’

So Theodora went to Audley, into a wilderness of parquet and balustrades. There was very little privacy. Even in her wardrobe the contemptuous laughter of maids hung in the folds of her skirts.

‘God, Theodora is ugly,’ said Frank. ‘These days she certainly looks a fright.’

The Aunt’s Story, pp. 112, 113

The bight of his prose attends the jaws of his own horror at the malicious force of the mediocre, the “average”, as embraced by those who turn from the desert.

‘A pity that you huddle,’ said the German. ‘Your country is of great subtlety.’

Voss, p. 11

Patrick White’s entire oeuvre is a paean to the plight of the man or woman living out of a spiritual vision, or, as Paul Tillich would have it, an “ultimate concern”, assailed by the malevolence, sometimes intended, often inadvertent, of the desert deniers. His personal theology aside, the God of his novels is, in Christian terms, Old Testament, an austere flame lighting the way of the chosen, if not always warming them, and laying waste to those who would choose.

Patrick White, 1912 - 1990

His affinity for those budding on the world’s far and tenuous branches he attributed to his homosexuality. It gave him dispensation, he felt, with the oppressed and reviled. He found it useful, in terms of his artistry, to adopt the rather outmoded notion that his orientation was a kind of gender inversion, a feminine spirit in a man’s body, which allowed him special knowledge and the ability to inhabit many lives. The title of his last completed novel was Memoirs of Many In One.

In my case, I never went through the agonies of choosing between this or that sexual way of life. I was chosen as it were, and soon accepted the fact of my homosexuality. In spite of looking convincingly male I may have been too passive to resist, or else I recognised the freedom being conferred upon me to range through every variation of the human mind, to play so many roles in so many contradictory envelopes of flesh. I settled into the situation. I did not question the darkness in my dichotomy, though already I had begun the inevitably painful search for the twin who might bring a softer light to bear on my bleakly illuminated darkness.

Flaws in the Glass, pp. 34, 35

Against his disavowal of “the agonies of choosing” and his easy acceptance of the “fact”, his telling self-analysis of having been “too passive to resist”, his taking his sexuality for a “darkness”, suggests a somewhat different, more tormented relationship with himself. Very little of his writing deals explicitly with homosexuality. In all the novels up to The Twyborn Affair (1979), the homoerotic undercurrents are so fleeting, so organic, so subtly rendered, that the closest reader would be forgiven for missing them. But all of his work shoots from Jacob’s hip, wounded in a battle where to be blessed means to finally accept and assimilate (though by no means necessarily to reconcile) one’s own multiple and warring selves, even those which destroy.

Some critics complain that my characters are always farting. Well, we do, don’t we? fart. Nuns fart according to tradition and pâtisserie. I have actually heard one.

Flaws in the Glass, p. 143

At his centenary, Patrick White’s relevance has increased, it seems, inversely to his readership. He is one of the essential writers. I hope you will read him.

What do I believe? I am accused of not making it explicit. How to be explicit about a grandeur too overwhelming to express, a daily wrestling match with an opponent whose limbs never become material, a struggle from which the sweat and blood are scattered on the pages of anything the serious writer writes? A belief contained less in what is said than in the silences. In patterns on water. A gust of wind. A flower opening. I hesitate to add a child, because a child can grow into a monster, a destroyer. Am I a destroyer? this face in the glass which has spent a lifetime searching for what it believes, but can never prove to be, the truth. A face consumed by wondering whether truth can be the worst destroyer of all.

Flaws in the Glass, p. 70


3 Responses to Patrick White’s Centenary: Australian Monolith, Explorer of the Inner Desert.

  1. I have just finished The Tree of Man. I have never been so moved by a book and intend to read his entire body of work including his autobiography. What gives him such insight into the tiniest fibers of the ties that bind us to another? After living with Stan and Amy I am so much more aware of the minutiae of my relationship. To properly build muscles it is necessary to first tire the bigger, stronger muscles to force the weaker to engage in heavy lifting. I feel now that the stronger muscles of my relationship been worn and I am aware of the smaller one’s, the usually unnoticed routines and pointless conversations are now profound.

    • Wendy! I was hoping you would stop by The Shelf to share your experience with The Tree of Man. And now you have. Imagine my delight.

      So, you’ve finished your first Patrick White novel. I would, almost, envy you your position of discovery, except that I have found the same feeling, of nearly shamanistic emergence, attends every new book of his I open. One puts down a White novel, looks up, and sees colors one only intuited before.

      In high school I was privileged travel to Germany with a choir. I’ll never forget the experience I had in a small, hilly town whose name I don’t recall, sitting in the choir loft of of what, by American standards, would have been a very old cathedral, and which by European counting would have hardly registered – perhaps two hundred years old – and hearing, for the first time, the mammoth organ embark like an ocean liner on Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in C Minor”. I felt a great weight settle on my chest and could hardly breath. My heart could beat only sideways. It was one of my first, and relatively few, great aesthetic revelations. Another, similar, happened to me in college, in my 20th Century Art History Class, when the professor stood up before us, his droopy and rather distracted students, and flashed a Cezanne on the screen. Not one of the famous ones. A harbor, viewed from above an ochre, mauve, and turquoise town, pre-cubist buildings sitting in a jumbled assertion of humanity that brought me almost to weep there in the dark, windowless classroom, weep for something so much larger than I would have been able to say, or even know. The novels of Patrick White share, for me, this rare luminosity.

      I love what you call “the tiniest fibers of the ties that bind us together”. What he is able to parse of the human spirit is indeed staggering. I might only extend your observation by suggesting that those fibers belong to the threads by which we are woven into the universe itself. Then again, White leaves me weak-kneed and prone to overstatement.

      From here, I would highly recommend you read Voss, a greater book, I think, than even The Tree of Man, and probably his most famous. I know on Shelfari I issued a warning about the not inconsiderable difficulties of The Aunt’s Story, but oh what a book it is. It marked his entrance onto the world stage, his first great novel. The difficulties are primarily in the middle section, the famous ‘Jardin Exotique’. But the considerable reward is worth the challenge (unlike in my experience, thus far, with Ulysseys, though I’ve not yet issued Joyce my surrender). A book like Patrick White’s Fiction, by Carolyn Bliss, might shepherd you through the most daunting thickets.

      And absolutely read Flaws in the Glass, his autobiography. It illuminates his fiction in an essential way. If you’re truly captured by the novels, then I’d recommend reading it soon. Maybe another another novel first.

      Blessings to you on your Journey up into the Whitean range.

  2. Hello David,

    I hope Sam is continuing to heal and that he is able to engage in his favorite activities. My thoughts are with both of you.

    I am posting today because I have started 2013 with Patrick White (I ended 2012 with my beloved Saramago.) I am reading Voss. I am, again, so grateful to have been introduced to White. It would be wonderful to have a book club/reading group interested in White. His writing lends itself to discussion more than other writers that I enjoy.

    Do you have a review of Voss posted somewhere? I know you have a lot to do now, but it would be lovely to read your reviews on Shelfari.