Flowers in the Desert: Patrick White at 100

December 28, 2012 | 7 books mentioned 5 11 min read

coverA hundred years after his birth, Patrick White (1912-1990) remains Australia’s only Nobel laureate for Literature (in 1973), but he’s as unknown to most readers as his name is nondescript. Though it rightly inducted him into the company of Faulkner, Hemingway, Beckett, and Bellow, White’s Nobel has done little to ensure the longevity of the work that earned it.

The centenary of his birth has seen a stirring of renewed interest, including the publication of his unfinished final novel, The Hanging Garden, and a number of events and panel discussions (including a podcasted roundtable with contemporary Australian writers called “Is Patrick White Anti-Australian?”) but the fact remains that only a few of his thirteen novels, and none of his plays and story collections, are in print in the US.

Lauded by the Nobel committee for his “epic and psychological narrative art, which has introduced a new continent into literature,” White might best be described as a chronicler of the potential of the Australian imaginary. He was also a chronicler of weakness, shortcoming, and deformation, but always in pursuit of a solitary vision of the ultimate on the far side. If being a national figure requires a burden of accessibility, whereby the author’s voice sheds its idiosyncrasies to become the voice of a mass socio-historical experience in an objectively real place, his failure to achieve this status only proves the success of his actual project.

It’s hard to believe that his novels appeared contemporaneously with those of Gaddis, Coover, and Pynchon. Though he takes on the instability of identity in his own way (one of his characters plumbs her “self of selves”), it always resolves or collapses into inner unity, not into the pyrotechnic fragmentation of high postmodernism. His winding streams of consciousness and sudden perspectival leaps draw from the European Modernism of the early 20th century, and his belief in the mystic potential of nature and the supremacy of Art draws from the Romanticism of the early 19th, yet neither would have accommodated him.

As the 20th century finishes receding, we will have to interrogate its artistic legacies and decide which few to carry with us further into the 21st, rescuing them from the Flood that will wash the rest away. I think White should be among these few, but unpaired, able only to reproduce with himself inside the Ark. It’s right that he should be at large in time, reachable only by straining to get to where he is, ready for the discomfort of being alone with him there. To borrow a phrase from The Twyborn Affair, he is “the stranger of all time,” no more or less the voice of now than he was, or wanted to be, of then.

covercoverI read Voss (1957), White’s classic, about a 19th century German explorer who leads a doomed expedition into the outback; The Vivisector (1970), a long fictional biography of a merciless and egomaniacal painter patterned on Sidney Nolan, a major Australian artist in White’s day, and more loosely, if you like, on Francis Bacon; and The Twyborn Affair (1979), one of his strangest and most psychologically daunting works, which traces the life and fate of a Trinity of characters – two women and a man – incarnated, at different times, in the same body. Finally I read his memoir, Flaws in the Glass (1981), which reflects on the inner life that preceded, undergirded, and survived the novels.

This body of work isn’t just challenging; it’s actively uninviting. White can be as misanthropic as Celine or Bernhard: “He found his way back to the bed and slept several ages in hells. Or was it awake in life?”; “She had powdered herself almost to death; only the patches of dry rouge on the cheekbones and the unhealed scar of a mouth reminded too vividly of life.” Nearing the end of his life, a man still sees his hunchbacked adopted sister as “a growth he had learnt to live with.”

Entering White’s sanctum requires a purification ritual. You have to isolate yourself entirely within it, cutting all lifelines to the rest of literature, and pressing on, mortified, into the same estrangement that drove its maker. There are some artists you have to forgive before you can benefit from knowing them. I’ve tried to forgive White for the fact that he probably wouldn’t have liked me, and wouldn’t have cared that I like him. It’s worth it. If you weather the cold plunge, you’ll find a place riven with sudden upsurges of divinity, alive with a truth that I don’t think will grow falser with time.

coverThough he was named “Australian of the Year” in 1973, White was never integrated into his nation’s literary heritage. Branding himself “an intruder… a threat to the tradition of Australian literature,” he recalls that The Aunt’s Story, which he numbers among his three greatest books, “was considered freakish, unintelligible – a nothing. You only had to pick up a library copy to see where the honest Australian reader had given it up as a bad job.”

Born in London into the fourth generation of an affluent Sydney family, White was ancestrally tied to the Australian land but educated (both as a child and again in college) in England, and came of age there and as an intelligence officer in Greece and the Middle East in WWII. He returned to “wet, boiling, superficial, brash, beautiful, ugly Sydney,” as if retracing the journey of an exiled convict. Having resolved to fight for self-realization in a homeland he could neither love nor leave, he was filled with “disillusionment and despair for the wrong turning I felt my life had taken when I came back to Australia.”

He assiduously turned down interviews and invitations, scorned academic attention, asked to be removed from shortlists (including the Booker, for Twyborn) and, in a gesture that seems both egalitarian and isolationist, even renounced prizes he’d won to make room for younger Australian writers. He made a defining exception for the Nobel, but still refused to travel to Stockholm for the ceremony, a decision that “must remain incomprehensible to all those who don’t understand my nature or my books.”

These testaments to artistic merit would have opened a dead space between him and the confrontation at the center of what he was doing. Like Voss, who “would have repudiated kinship with other men if it had been offered,” White safeguarded his vision from a world that preferred “to cast him in bronze than to investigate his soul.” He remained in himself, rather than falling into the third-person perspective of public adulation.

Most importantly for the conception of Voss and all that would follow, White believed that Australians hadn’t adequately explored their continent. Laura Trevelyan, the Australian woman who will become Voss’s spirit-bride, “was afraid of the country which, for lack of any other, she supposed was hers. But this fear, like certain dreams, was something to which she would never have admitted.”

Instead of facing their fear, White’s upper class Sydneysiders (in the 19th century as in the 20th) cling to a narrow strip of coastline and a set of Eurocentric affectations. A hostess “pronounced ‘Europe’ as though tasting her own party for a flavour she feared it might lack.” Working at once to represent and to overcome this culture of denial, White laments that, “Where I have gone wrong in life is in believing that total sincerity is compatible with human intercourse… my pursuit of that razor-blade truth has made me a slasher.”

He slashes through euphemism and distraction to reach a linguistic plane on which he can say what things actually are, in an idiom at once poetic and acute: “She had taken off her hat, so that her head was now completely hers;” “The sea was stirring and glinting as though sharpening itself against itself;” “Two big lamps had transformed the drawing-room into a perfect, luminous egg, which soon contained all the guests. These were waiting to be hatched by some communication with one another. Or would it not occur?”

When the time comes, Voss will yield gratefully to the danger of the desert. It’s the danger of “blank faces, like so many paper kites, themselves earthbound, or at most twitching in the warm shallows of atmosphere,” that he truly fears, knowing they “could prevent him soaring towards the apotheosis for which he was reserved. To what extent others had entangled him in the string of human limitation, he had grown desperate in wondering.” As he dreams of “the excruciating passage” into “that vast, expectant country,” he suspects that no one around him “had explored his own mind to the extent that would enable him to bear such experience.”

White might seem elitist, fascist even, in his hatred of ordinariness and celebration of a chosen few, but you can feel the compassion and sadness underneath: it wasn’t ordinary people he hated, but the cowardice with which people turn their backs on the extraordinary potential of our shared world in order to become ordinary.

Voss’s journey is the crucial entry point to White’s artistic interior because it sets up Australia as a soul-geography, unmapped and fraught with inner promise and desolation. The adventurer’s dream of inland seas and buried treasure gives way without resistance to the seeker’s dream of complete aloneness, in a place so empty that the self reaches a breaking point, beyond which lies rebirth – or birth for the first time.

As Voss and his men march toward “the point at which they would be offered up… to chaos or to heroism,” they look “back in amazement at their actual lives” and find the barrenness and privacy of the desert sparking up into moments of mystic illumination. White’s Australia, through Voss’s eyes, is a “disturbing country,” in which “it is possible more easily to discard the inessential and to attempt the infinite.” Near his inevitable, solitary death, Voss “attempted to count the days, but the simplest sums would swell into a calculation of universal time, so vast that it filled his mouth with one whole mealy potato, cold certainly, but of unmanageable proportions.”

The flowers that bloom in this desert aren’t tangible – “Wherever their common sweat fell, the desert didn’t flower, but thorns sprang up” – but they’re perceptible, in a dying man’s vision, “in the gelatinous light throughout the upper realm of – how would the archangel name this one when he appeared for its summation?” Mystical access in White’s work is rare, occurs without warning, and doesn’t last long (“She would be carried back out of the iridescence into a congealing of life”). But, for a moment, it delivers the individual beyond the reach of compromise.

Hurtle Duffield, The Vivisector’s titular painter, pursues this same flowering through his art. Early in his development, he feels a tantalizing inner presence beginning to stir. He “didn’t love himself… he loved something he had inside him,” even if most of the time it’s just a “warm stool he had been nursing… as a comfort.”

Just as the confrontation of individual and self in the desert gives rise to visions of God that social intercourse suppresses, White is keenly interested in forms of individual creativity that break free from the limits of sexual intercourse. Hurtle intuitively appreciates the subservience of sex to art, when he remembers how his adoptive mother, “would come into the bathroom and soap and sponge him, but his thing was less private than his drawing.” Coming into his own as an artist, “his bones almost clicked with the speed at which he rejected the flesh in favour of the one substance: paint.” By the end of his life, he finds he has, “multiplied, if not through his loins; he was no frivolous masturbator tossing his seed on to wasteland.” There is both ecstasy and torment in such multiplication, as if sex and birth could be combined into a single act.

coverWhite was openly gay, and themes of gender and sexuality slip and flow through his pursuit of the divine in Art and Nature. When he wonders how he “would have turned out had I been born a so-called normal heterosexual male,” the answer, to put it mildly, is not very well. “Ambivalence has given me insights into human nature, denied, I believe, to those who are unequivocally male or female,” he declares. “I would not trade my halfway house, frail though it be.” This multifariousness, which he alludes to in the title of his novel Memoirs of Many in One, is the source of all the shifting energies that drive The Twyborn Affair.

Compared to this halfway house, the entrenched family structure of father, mother, and child is a sham edifice built for the prevention of self-knowledge. Before he’s learned anything of the world, Hurtle senses that, “mothers and fathers, whoever they were, really didn’t matter: it was between you and Death or something.” His perspective grows more nuanced when he determines that, “all children… start out as yourself.” The families that matter to White are composed of adopted and surrogate children, shadow twins, “spiritual children,” and, as J.M. Coetzee puts it in his introduction to The Vivisector, “a strange kind of incestuous autogenesis.” All such conceptions, whether immaculate or downright filthy, mirror the conception of original ideas: they arise first from stillness and privacy, and then from sudden contact across metaphysical boundaries.

This amounts to a total theory of Art, inextricable, as White lived it, from the loneliness of the novelist. He describes The Vivisector as the story of the painter he “was not destined to become.” Though he dreamed that “the physical act of painting would exhilarate me far more than grinding away at grey, bronchial prose,” prose is what he had to work with, and he kept working. The novel is a punishing and unspontaneous form, but it brings you face-to-face with whatever’s inside you, with no technical limitations to blame when you don’t like what you see. In this way, White approached the art form that’d chosen him like Australia itself: an arid and unwelcoming expanse, but one that kept calling him back, promising access to an unconditional truth that would both sustain and consume his life.

Australia has a previous significance for me. I took a gap year before college and, wanting to go somewhere I’d never been and where I didn’t know anyone, but where I could still speak English and get a work visa, I spent the first six months in Sydney.

When I started planning, at the end of high school, I couldn’t imagine existential upset or loneliness following me so far from home. The idea of the place was so far-fetched I thought simply saying, “I’m in Australia!” all day would occupy me. But I got over the displacement soon enough, and questions of how to live as an individual in time and in society, and how to make a living and organize my thoughts into something expressible, not only returned but struck me with the force of being newly for real.

Sydney came to be the place where I felt the first stirring of an adult creative life, as opposed to my childhood’s unbounded make-believe and my teenage theater of hazy possibility. I looked hard for a literary community in Sydney, at the university, in bookstores, in the events listings in alternative papers, but found little. I discovered that I wanted to make a go of it, whatever that would come to mean, but I didn’t discover Patrick White. Seven years later, reading him has taken me back to that search and articulated much of what and how I felt, but it’s also added a sharpness that wouldn’t have been there if I’d read him then, in his city.

I took a job working at info booths in malls all over the Sydney suburbs, chatting up shoppers as they walked by. Though it exists just as much in America, my first exposure to the true vapidity and terror of mass consumer culture happened there. I felt something new stirring in me during those months, and, at the same time, I felt something else trying to choke it to death.

So I started fantasizing about the outback. After I got up the funds and the resolve to actually go, I went. It was the first desert I’d ever been in. I got sunburned all over my face and neck from sleeping against a train window, and saw hues of red and orange so incredible I can’t picture them in memory; I can only remember my amazement. I shed some parts of myself, and others came to light, as if crawling up into newly freed space. You can’t ever really be alone in that desert. If you go out there, you start to feel those parts moving, back up from under the malls.

This plentitude is the reward for White’s isolation, and for the isolation you’ll have to impose on yourself to receive what he has to offer. You won’t be able to forgive him if you see yourself within his view of other people. Instead, you have to experience his world vicariously, as him, or as one of his proxy artists and seekers. You have to go on that trip, believe yourself capable of that searing intensity of vision.

Once you do, it’s no longer about recognizing him or his work. It’s about recognizing yourself, and what’s in you. This is all that’ll keep it alive, and all that should. Like Voss, White’s exploration discovered fertile ground deep in the “country of which he had become possessed by implicit right.” He left his “name on the land, irrevocably, his material body swallowed by what it had named.” He’s at rest there now, vanished into “some desert place, a perfect abstraction, that would rouse no feeling of tenderness in posterity.” Without any such tenderness, and without disturbing his dust, we can go there any time we want, to be alone and not alone.

is a writer and animator from Northampton, MA. He has a new story in Black Clock 16 and is at work on his first novel. He can be found online at and reached at