Patrick White White, Patrick (Vol. 9)

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White, Patrick (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

White, Patrick 1912–

A British-born Australian playwright, short story writer, and novelist, White won the 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature. His work is characterized by its broad scope and technical precision. His panoramic stories encompass nearly every facet of Australian life, and his sardonic wit and preoccupation with death are always evident. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 4, 5, 7.)

Johann Ulrich Voss [in White's novel Voss] is an explorer whose nature shows a deep ambition to fulfil itself in previously uncharted, insidiously "unmaking" country. Voss is counterpointed by Laura Trevelyan who, like him, seeks to be flawless. The two protagonists have the desert and the garden as their literal and metaphoric environments, and these settings, derived from powerful archetypes, serve as symbolic polarities of experience. The desert is most strongly associated with Voss; the garden with Laura. But both symbols are complementary, for they work together in a relationship that sharpens the radical theme of metaphysical completeness.

One of the most remarkable features in White's construction of the Voss myth is a transformation of the traditional relationship between garden and desert. Prior to this novel, myths of the land posit the garden as a more important force than the desert because it represents the progress of civilization, but Voss shows that true progress comes out of conflict with uncivilizable forces. It is not the garden but the desert with its abstract strength that confirms or makes character. (p. 557)

Unlike the garden, the desert is a primeval feature of Australian landscape and is filled with sand, scrub, and exotic creatures many of which are unfamiliar to all but the aborigine…. In Voss, its implacable rigors are never minimized, but its barrenness and unfamiliar spirit tempt Voss to create something in place of its seeming emptiness. Apparently infinite in its power to reduce humans to impotence, despair, and madness, the desert is the hell through which Voss and his party journey, away from the comparative Eden of the city-garden.

Because of its immense scope and self-sufficiency, the desert is a proper metaphor for Voss. It is true to itself and not delimited by humans. It merely is, extending for miles that seem to vanish into infinity. The desert is remote from human society and is hospitable only to those, such as the aborigines, who apprehend its spirit of place. As such, then, it has affinities with Voss who would himself like to be remote from humans and capable of indulging his appetite for power and infinity.

Just as the desert is inaccessible to many people, Voss is unreachable in a psychological sense. He is clearly an outsider in Sydney, for much is made of his German accent, coarse beard, shabby dress, and aloofness. White, who has often focused on outsiders …, concentrates on Voss's self-containment which makes the character "sufficient in himself" and "one of the superior ones" … who invites the hostility of Sydney's colonials. (p. 558)

White's technique of chiaroscuro portraiture reveals how Voss is kept a foreigner in New South Wales. Shadow or obscurity at first covers everything that is not the surface of the German's personality, whereas light or revelation falls only on Voss's accent; beard, restless fidgeting, and paradoxical self-assurance. We don't immediately see his face, and his inward disposition is kept more than a little ambiguous and inscrutable….

Voss has a Protean quality by the fact that he is different things to different men, and the profusion of his images suggests an immensity of personality that matches the desert in sheer scope. Just as the desert does not appear to be contained by any tangible, visible boundary, so also Voss's character appears to sprawl across vast areas of attitude. He is variously described as a crag upon which "truth must batter itself to survive" …; a burning element …; a scarecrow …; a greedy-looking pig …; a juggler of hopes …; a madman …; and,...

(The entire section is 5,470 words.)