Posts Tagged 'Patrick White'
I. THE BOOK: GOD APPEARS IN A GOB OF SPITTLE
It is hardly a spoiler to say that on page 508 of Patrick White’s novel The Tree of Man Stan Parker dies. One gathers from the opening pages, in which we find the young Stan Parker establishing himself as a pin-point of humanity in the vast Australian bush, that this is going to be “that kind of a book”. One could even suspect it from the title itself, proclaiming, as it does, the novel’s encompassing intentions with perilously grand echoes: The Descent of Man, The Tree of Life, The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Man’s Fate, Man’s Hope, The World Tree, The Rise of Man, The Fall, etc.. No question that we are going to be reading through the full gamut, life, death, and all the rest. By the time we turn the last pages, having lived with Stan Parker, his wife, Amy, and their children, Ray and Thelma, through fire, flood, griefs, infidelity, failures and quiet triumphs, and, yes, Stan’s death, that potentially burdensome title, we find, has long since shed all grandiosity, and become merely apt.
Stan Parker has been called Patrick White’s “first good man”. David Marr, White’s biographer, records his struggles to create him: “The greatest technical difficulty White faced, one which drove him to rages and left him sitting, at times ‘three days over just one sentence’ was the challenge of making goodness live and breathe on the page. ‘I’m not a good person,’ White often confessed to his friends. ‘But I know goodness.’” Stan Parker is stubborn and a bit of a fatalist, like White himself. He is practical, strong of body, taciturn, with a great, uncharted continent of poetry lost somewhere inside of him. This subterranean spiritual thirst sends out signal flares in fragile moments, as when he takes Ray, with whom he has spent the years leading up to the boy’s puppy-killing adolescence inadvertently constructing a great edifice of relational failure, into the bush, in hopes that the vast, open distances will do for his son what it always does for him.
Stan intuits God, without ever naming God, in the elements. On a hot night, after Amy, has gone to bed, he remains outside, waiting for a storm to break. When it does, he is, at first, exultant.
But as the storm increased, his flesh had doubts, and he began to experience humility. The lightning, which could have struck open basalt, had, it seemed, the power to open souls. It was obvious in the yellow flash that something like this had happened, the flesh had slipped from his bones, and the light was shining in his cavernous skull.
Yet, for all the intimations, God remains elusive. Only at the end, minutes before his death, does Stan receive his revelation. He is sitting in a chair, old and failing, amidst the trees in the yard outside his home, where he is accosted by an earnest young man aflame with the Gospel. God, the young man believes, has saved him from a life of women and alcohol. Such conversions crave ratification through the conversions of others, and Stan Parker has been elected. Which means that this most private moment at which his life has, at last, arrived, is threatened by farce. During this encounter, Stan relieves himself of phlegm:
Then the old man, who had been cornered long enough, saw, through perversity perhaps, but with his own eyes. He was illuminated.
He pointed with his stick at the gob of spittle.
“That is God,” he said.
As it lay glittering intensely and personally on the ground.
Stan is not being impertinent. He is responding to a great unveiling. The bewildered young man departs, leaving behind some tracts which he hopes will finish the job he, and of course the Holy Spirit, have begun, while Stan continues to stare at the spittle. Only now, a “jewel”.
A great tenderness of understanding rose in his chest. Even the most obscure, the most sickening incidents of his life were made clear. In that light. How long will they leave me like this, he wondered, in peace and understanding.
The “gob of spittle” passage is famous in Australian literature. It is one of the very few overtly religious moments in what is a deeply religious novel. White’s God, when finally called forth, is, as we see, viscous. What’s more, this God has emerged from Stan himself. Quite literally. In all of White’s work, and in this book in particular, it is only when his characters cease resisting their messy, humbling, secreting bodies, and the often ramshackle lives through which those bodies stumble, that they encounter what they had always believed lay beyond themselves. What they encounter is no less transcendent for this, no less luminous. It is a difficult truth. But then, Patrick White is known as a “difficult” writer. Difficult, too, because he uses a richly allusive, subtly symbolic language to coax his reader into a parallel awareness. Sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase, White nudges his reader awake, quietly drawing attention to something just off the page, or behind it. Listen to how White evokes Stan, on that last afternoon, sitting:
That afternoon the old man’s chair had been put on the grass at the back, which was quite dead-looking from the touch of winter. Out there at the back, the grass, you could hardly call it a lawn, had formed a circle in the shrubs and trees which the old woman had not so much planted as stuck in during her lifetime. There was little of design in the garden originally, though one had formed out of the wilderness. It was perfectly obvious that the man was seated at the heart of it, and from this heart the trees radiated, with grave movements of life, and beyond them the sweep of a vegetable garden, which had gone to weed during the months of the man’s illness, presented the austere skeletons of cabbages and the wands of onion seed. All was circumference to the centre, and beyond that the worlds of other circles, whether crescent of purple villas or the bare patches of earth, on which rabbits sat and observed some abstract spectacle for minutes on end, in a paddock not yet built upon. The last circle but one was the cold and golden bowl of winter, enclosing all that was visible and material, and at which the man would blink from time to time, out of his watery eyes, unequal to the effort of realizing he was the centre of it.
I quote at length because White does a better job than I could ever do of summation. We have come to know this rangy garden, these trees. By drawing attention, at the novel’s end, to its inception as a kind of horticultural flailing, and its subsequent emergent design, White invites us to consider at least two layers of meaning beyond the the physical. First, there is the life of this couple, more like the garden described than the garden itself. Notice that here Amy is named “the old woman”. Throughout the book, at intervals, Stan and Amy are stripped of their given names and called simply, “the man”, “the woman”, rendering them at once mythic and fragile. We’ve met them before, most memorably in The Book of Genesis. We watch these two ordinary, unformed, people, grope their way toward each other, generally missing each other by a mile. We watch as they try, and fail, to be the parents their children need. We watch Amy become possessive, while Stan grows ever more distant. We watch their erotic lives travel along incompatible arcs of meaning. The flood they survive and the fire they survive, leave scars on their souls far more lasting than those left on the land on which they survive. And that land, on which they were the first to settle, will not long bear up under the ugly banality of urban encroachment. Along the way they learn that death is always a violence, regardless of its means, and that death can mean something quite other than the demise of the body. As they approach the end of their great meander, not far in miles, but metaphysically epic, they find they have arrived at a life. Its been going on all along, of course. They can look across it now, find its design, and a kind of undeclared grace. Through their story, White draws our attention to a process, the mystery of creation itself. What wasn’t, now is, simply for something having been “stuck in” along the way. It is as if, at the end of the novel, we are witnesses to its birth.
And how about all those circles. This passage’s most obvious antecedent is the famous final paragraph of The Dead, in which Joyce lifts his lens to ever more encompassing circles of snowfall. In White’s homage, Stan sits at the heart of a veritable mandala: a circle of shrubs and trees first, then the vegetable garden, then the paddocks, and, the last but one, the “cold and golden bowl of winter.” Like a Hasid, White refuses to name the final circle. And yet, it is into this circle that all is, finally, subsumed.
II. THE BACKGROUND: THE REPATRIATED PATRICK WHITE LANDS ON HIS BEHIND
White might never have written The Tree of Man. The poor reception, in Australia, of his previous novel, the brilliant The Aunt’s Story, had all but disposed him never to write again. But then, Australia itself began to encroach upon his always negligible peace of mind. In his autobiographical essay, “The Prodigal Son”, he writes about the inception of The Tree of Man:
Then, suddenly, I began to grow discontented. Perhaps, in spite of Australian critics, writing novels was the only thing I could do with any degree of success; even my half-failures were some justification of an otherwise meaningless life. Returning sentimentally to a country I had left in my youth, what had I really found: Was there anything to prevent me packing my bag and leaving…? Bitterly I had to admit, no. In all directions stretched the Great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions, in which the rich man is the important man, in which the schoolmaster and the journalist rule what intellectual roost there is, in which beautiful youths and girls stare at life through blind blue eyes, in which human teeth fall like autumn leaves, the buttocks of cars grow hourly glassier, food means cake and steak, muscles prevail, and the march of material ugliness does not raise a quiver from the average nerves.
It was the exaltation of the ‘average’ that made me panic most, and in this frame of mind, in spite of myself, I began to conceive another novel. Because the void I had to fill was immense, I wanted to try to suggest in this book every possible aspect of life, through the lives of an ordinary man and woman. But at the same time I wanted to discover the extraordinary behind the ordinary, the mystery and the poetry which alone could make bearable the lives of such people, and incidentally, my own life since my return.
This discontent, and the urgency to ameliorate it through writing, had a background which he did not reveal until late in his life, when age had, if anything, sharpened his powers of ruthless self-observation. In his memoir, Flaws in the Glass, he recounts a Damascene moment which, like Stan’s final transfiguration, was at once intensely personal and catalyzed by farce. Actually, in White’s case, slapstick: White and his partner, Manoly Lascaris, were raising Schnauzers on a six-acre farm on the outskirts of Sydney. He hadn’t written anything for nearly seven years, and had grown used to it. A few days before Christmas 1951, a frail but kicking faith broke through while feeding the dogs in a downpour…
During what seemed like months of rain I was carrying a trayload of food to a wormy litter of pups down at the kennels when I slipped and fell on my back, dog dishes shooting in all directions. I lay where I had fallen, half-blinded by rain, under a pale sky, cursing through watery lips a god in whom I did not believe. I began laughing finally, at my own helplessness and hopelessness, in the mud and the stench from my filthy old oilskin.
It was the turning point. My disbelief appeared as farcical as my fall. At that moment I was truly humbled.
…and from this faith, the need to carve out a place for it in a world that seemed at odds with it. From the opening sentences of The Tree of Man, we hear him wrestling to draw forth “the extraordinary behind the ordinary”, what Annie Dillard calls “Holy the Firm”, a mystical substance on which the physical world is made, but which is, itself, in touch with God. On every page you can hear White explaining to himself that Advent-season ass-plant in the mud, smeared with what he could no longer resist.
Worse things, by far, have taken root in the mud. This is a very great book. I hope you read it.
III. AN INTERVIEW WITH WHITE’S BIOGRAPHER, DAVID MARR: “THE LIFE AND FAITH OF PATRICK WHITE”
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
Patrick White, 1912 - 1990
The time has come to speak of Patrick White, whose centenary on May 28th, is fast upon us. I will try to keep this post fairly short because I am currently in such a snit of idolatry that I won’t have anything especially coherent to say. I will simply put forth that, for me, Patrick White ranks along side Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Saul Bellow as one of the greatest novelists to write in English in the twentieth century. Hyperbole? You decide:
The woman winding wool held all this enclosed in her face, which had begun to look sunken. It was late, of course, late for the kind of lives they led. Sometimes the wool caught in the cracks of the woman’s coarse hands. She was without mystery now. She was moving round the winding chairs on flat feet, for she had taken off her shoes for comfort, and her breasts were rather large inside her plain blouse. Self-pity and a feeling of exhaustion made her tell herself her husband was avoiding her, whereas he was probably just waiting for a storm. This would break soon, freeing them from their bodies. But the woman did not think of this. She continued to be obsessed by the hot night, and insects that were filling the porcelain shade of the lamp, and the eyes of her husband, that were at best kind, at worst cold, but always closed to her. If she could have held his head in her hands and looked into the skull at his secret life, whatever it was, then, she felt, she might have been placated. But as the possibility was so remote, she gave such a twist to the wool that she broke the strand.
—The Tree of Man
Here is the Whiteian sublime. The physicality he evokes signifies without strain: note her too large breasts, elected from, we gather, a panoply of attributes waxing too large in her plain life. And how about that biblical ninth sentence, gathering into her obsessions the hot night, insects filling the porcelain lamp shade, the eyes of her husband, and finally something vast and forsaken at her core. Of course, we realize upon reaching the end of this passage, which feels more like a perimeter than a terminus, how obvious, the strand of wool will break, lacking, as it does, the heart’s resilience. Whole chapters could be written plucking the riches from the limbs of this passage. And, in a fictional output comprised of some six thousand pages of such passages, this one is more or less garden variety, making the oeuvre of Patrick White one of the most valuable gardens in modern literature.
Which begs the question, why is no one reading him? Why am I practically the only one I know who has even heard of him (apart from those few of my friends who politely let me blather encomiums)? His oeuvre has received sufficient critical attention to persuade me that I am not alone in my admiration. But even those who speak highly of him tend to refer to him as “the most important figure in Australian letters,” or “the first to put Australia on the literary map.” Three cheers for post-White Aussie writers. But White himself is so much more than the down-underwriter of his country’s literary life. He is a world writer in every sense, and should be spoken of in the same terms we reserve for José Saramago, Thomas Mann, Philip Roth, Nadine Gordimer. Why isn’t he?
In my search for answers I’ve been reading his books like mad, reading criticism, trolling the internet, and talking with friends. A distillation of what I’ve found comes down to these four points:
1. Patrick White is a high modernist, making him unfashionable in a post-modern world. As far as I can tell, what this means is that he followed Joyce, Woolf, Pound, and their ilk, in the belief that the old assurances provided by religion, society, and political designations, could no longer bear the weight of modern life and thought. These writers saw a sharp division between literary art and more accessible, or popular, writing. Their books are frank about their difficulties. White has been criticized for the density of his “mannered” or “poetic” prose, his “clotted images”, and fragmented sentences. Naturally, this will limit his readership, but it cannot, on its own, account for his enduring obscurity. His writing is dense, but not daunting. Most of the best of Faulkner is much more difficult. We don’t call Samuel Beckett unfashionable just because no one writes like him now.
2. Patrick White is too pessimistic, too dark, and what he asks us to consider about human nature – ourselves included - is beyond the pale for most readers. I concede this may be so. Many readers have commented on the “shock of recognition” which assails them on nearly every page. But this laying bare, this “truth telling”, to use a rather hackneyed term, this “vivisection”, to use a Whiteian term, is solidly within the purview of the artist. Do serious readers really find the meanness of Nabokov so much more edifying? Does one turn to Eugene O’Neill for a little cheer-up? If White is too relentlessly grim, how, then, make sense of the ever-rising star of Cormac McCarthy, who throws a dense, gorgeous, ball of modernist prose at the violence at the heart of the void? (White’s biographer, David Marr, has said, perhaps too felicitously, that McCarthy could be “up before Media Watch on charges of plagiarism by spirit.) While we’re at it, why don’t we, for the sake of our constitutions, leave Shakespeare on his increasingly dusty shelf while we get a little spiritual r&r.
Patrick White and Manoly Lascaris in the kitchen
3. Patrick White was gay. This seems to be the pet gripe of educated gay men of a certain generation, who, to compensate for their admitted fragility in the world, draw strength from being “the only gay in the village.”
4. Patrick White was Australian, making him peripheral to the bossier entities of the literary world. This argument is, sadly, the most persuasive. It grieves me to think that literature may be subject to the same laws as cynical politics: if a country fails to find ascendance in the consciousness of a more established block, it could drop off the map altogether and the privileged parties would be none the wiser. Sam, my partner, has a different take. “There is just so much literature,” he says. His point being, if you are looking to expand your knowledge of even just the essential modern writers, would it occur to you to look to a country known mainly for kangaroos, English convicts, a rather flamboyant strain of machismo, the world’s largest Gay Pride parade, one famous piece of architecture, and an accent often invoked in comedy? Of course there is great writing coming out of that lonely desert of a continent, or at least the thin portion of it strung along its Eastern cost, but its not where most of us would go looking for it. All the same, I would think the fecund sub-genre of post-colonial literature would be happy to hold up Patrick White as one of its shining lights. Can it really come down the banality that Naipaul, Walcott, Gordimer, Coetzee, and Rushdie hale from politically sexier homelands? But then, how to account for Les Murray, widely considered one of the three or four greatest poets currently writing in English. He’s Australian.
None of these explanations finally compel. Factoring in the idea that depth and brilliance in a body of work ought to outweigh whatever might be put in the opposing balance – an apparently fanciful notion in which I persist - here is one further explanation:
5. Ignorance of Patrick White and his work has, quite simply, become a habit. A bad one, I might add.
As with racism, car crashes, and other absurdities, I find Patrick White’s obscurity hard to live with. My question – why is no one reading him? – is not rhetorical, but an honest plea for responses. Someone, please tell me.
I began my previous post, “Transcending Allegory: William Golding’s The Spire (part 1)”, with a quick rundown of the pitfalls of allegory, how it can grab a narrative by its throat, twist it about, and force it to kiss its own rectitude, and how it can make for lifeless characters whose only function is to represent a particular moral principal. Ever since publishing Lord of the Flies William Golding has regularly born the charge of failing to miss the banana peel at the edge of the allegorical pit. I then wrote about how The Spire (1964), his fifth published novel, is read by some as confirmation of this criticism (It is, after all, about building a “spire”, wink wink.), making his career, at least up to that point, a possible subject for an allegory about the “folly of good intentions”. Then I shared my own experience of actually reading it, how I had expected its flaws to skitter over the pages like medieval demons over the doorstep of a lost soul. But after two careful readings, I was unable to make any of the complaints adhere. Instead, I found it magnificent. Which means that if someone where to write an allegory about the virtue of “just appraisal” or “the giving of second chances”, the author might invent a character named “Snotnose, a reader with a blog”, and relate his comedown and subsequent redemption through a reading of Golding’s The Spire.
Salisbury Cathedral, visible from Golding's window at Bishop Wentworth's School for Boys, where he taught from 1939 to 1961 (with five years off for wartime service in the Royal Navy), was the inspiration and model for the catheral in THE SPIRE. Salisbury Cathedral's 404-foot spire is the tallest in Great Britain.
One of the ways Golding uses, and then transcends, allegory is through his portrayal of his protagonist. Jocelin is dean of a medieval English cathedral for which he believes God has commanded him to construct an impossibly tall spire. Like most who claim this kind of direct connection with God, he comes across as thoroughly glazed, eyes never dropping lower than the mid-distance. Lacking the gravitas of, say, Noah, he is dependent upon his position of authority to counter all challenges to this vision. His most vocal opponent is Roger Mason, his master builder, who recognizes the insanity of pressing onward and upward with the great stone phallus known to all, save Jocelin himself, as “Jocelin’s Folly”. Jocelin traps him with a narcissist’s acumen for detecting the weaknesses of those within his orbit. First, he cuts off the possibility of other, better, work for Roger and his men. Then, more deviously, he allows an affair to bloom between Roger and Goody Pangall, wife of an impotent and crippled verger. “She will keep him here,” he rationalizes. The affair has the double function of allowing him to distance himself from from his own stifling and stifled sexual desire. He treats the liaison, ultimately a lethal one, with a kind of willed blindness, perhaps his most salient attribute. As building progresses, and the menace of disaster looms ever larger, Jocelin proves a virtuoso of the blind eye turned. The cost of building materials, the alienation of his clergy, his spiritual duties to his “flock”, the paganism of the workmen, the mental dissolution of Roger, his own misbegotten position, even a case of human sacrifice in which the victim is walled into the foundation of the cathedral (an event Golding conveys with masterful ambiguity), all of it goes unmarked by the obsessed dean.
Golding uses his creation as would an allegorist, disallowing him that final measure of freedom, to fidget about and exhibit incongruities, that is the hallmark of more lifelike fictional characters. A more flexible and far-ranging novelist, like Patrick White, creates characters who are buffeted by the winds of their own consciousnesses, apparently separate from the author’s, and who experience such vicissitudes of circumstance and event that they can’t help but respond with vicissitudes of their own, emerging as essentially dignified agents, however flawed, of their own lives. By contrast, one never senses that, in the process of writing this book, Golding ever woke up wondering what stunt that crazy Jocelin was going to pull next. Rather, he brings his character into sharp focus solely through the lens of his sin. Pride, the deadliest of the famous seven, is referenced into everything he does, says, or thinks. But the sin itself, and any moralistic stance towards it, is not really Golding’s subject. More, it is the impetus to sin, and in The Spire the impetus is multiform, a miasma of sexual repression, physical disease, narcissistic scaffolding, spiritual fragility. Golding is willing to trade a measure of “realism” for a more concise and dramatically useful embodiment of these complex dynamics. Jocelin is guilty of pride, but is not Pride himself. He is more a figure from Greek myth than medieval allegory.
Mythic though he may be, Golding is too sophisticated a writer to allow a single reading of Jocelin. On the one hand, he is a narcissistic demon, oblivious to the lives he destroys. Golding’s rendering of him as such is subtle. To the criticism, mentioned in the previous post, that Golding has “seriously underwritten” his novel, showing characters and their settings in mere outline, I rejoin that he has, with a remarkably steady hand, drawn his readers into his protagonist’s consciousness. The Spire is what Wayne Booth (The Rhetoric of Fiction) describes as a third-person narrator-agent novel, a third person novel whose central character so influences the action that he functions nearly as a first-person voice. Through the sparsity of the setting, and those outlines and gestures which pass for people, we see the world as Jocelin sees it. That is, we see the attenuation of all that does not immediately come to bare on his God-haunted vision.
On the other hand, Jocelin is the portrait of an artist. He confronts the modern Western reader with one of our culture’s most cherished archetypes: the Visionary. We are gluttons for stories about the artist-hero who, against all odds and opposition, and unlike most of us, remains true to his or her vision, seeing it through to its triumphant completion. (No matter how clear-eyed our world view, there is always a little Ayn Rand lurking behind a polyp in our soul.) While Jocelin brings destruction, not least of all to himself, he is also the agent of creation. His sin may be pride, but his virtue is a kind of simplicity, a singleness of purpose that any true artist must exhibit. Whatever is demonic in him, his faith is genuine, and it is It is not, I think, a spoiler to say that at the end of the novel, having undergone a highly ambivalent redemption in which he is, paradoxically, shorn of this very faith, together with his “vision”, Jocelin dies, but —his spire still stands.
I hope Golding sent at least an expensive bouquet of flowers to whoever talked him out of his original title, An Erection at Barcester, for he would have done his own vision a grave disservice.
"Round about the year 1200, Bishop Poore was standing on a hill overlooking the confluence of the local rivers, according to legend, when the mother of Jesus appeared to him, told him to shoot an arrow and build her a church where the arrow fell. The arrow flew more than a mile and fell in the middle of a swamp. There, with complete indifference to such things as health, foundations, access and general practicability, the cathedral was built. Eighty years later, with a technological gamble which makes space travel seem child's play, the builders erected the highest spire in the country on top of it, thousands of tons of lead and iron and wood and stone. Yet the whole building still stands. It leans. It totters. It bends. But it still stands...a perpetual delight, a perpetual wonder." ---William Golding, "An Affection for Cathedrals"
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