Heaven in a Grain of Sand'-Patrick White's Contemporary Vision

By vanden Driesen, Cynthia | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview
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Heaven in a Grain of Sand'-Patrick White's Contemporary Vision


vanden Driesen, Cynthia, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


It should be emphasised at the outset that Patrick White, so far, Australia's only native-born Nobel Prize winning novelist should not be too narrowly categorised as a "religious" writer .His works have a magisterial breadth and range of theme that have invited a range of varied approaches to his work. Yet White has himself unequivocally asserted the central concern of his novels: "Religion--that's behind all my novels ... the relationship between the blundering human being and God." (Mc Gregor, 1969,216) . As the "blundering human beings" of his novels succeed in working out their relationship to "an unseen order"--to God, their lives appear to open to the possibility of a harmonious resolution of all the vicissitudes of experience. His own faith cannot admit of narrow categorisation: "I belong to no church but I have a religious faith ... I have lifted various bits from various religions in trying to come to a better understanding."(McGregor,1969, 218). Religion, in White's work does not imply constraints within a narrow orthodoxy; it conforms rather to the broad definition proffered by William James as "a belief that there is an unseen order and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto." (1928, 271)

Notwithstanding the obvious secularisation of the modern world which made White realise his preoccupation with religious themes ensured his work "sticks in the guts of the rigidly rational;" he also believed that 'most people have a religious factor, but are afraid that by admitting it they will forfeit their right to be considered intellectuals. (Wilkes & Herring, 1973,138)' This Paper will highlight some of the writerly strategies through which White negotiates the challenges which appear to confront the writer who attempts to explore a religious vision of the world

The most significant and wide-ranging debates regarding the interface between religion and literature seem to have been mostly located in the period between the 1940's and 1970's and occupied the attention of some of the best critical and creative talents of the time. The time was also synonymous with White's own emergence as a writer of repute on the national and world stage and obviously engaged his own intellectual probing and provoked his own imaginative and creative experimentation.

Paul van Buren, commenting on the excessively secularised nature of the culture of the mid-twentieth century stated: 'Today we cannot even understand the Nietszchean cry that God is dead, for if it were s how would we know?' (1963,103.)

White was acutely aware of the difficulties inherent in the exploration of religious themes in the context of the time but was convinced of the possibilities of negotiating the challenge: ' Now as the world grows more pagan, one has to lead people in the same direction in a different way." (McGregor,218). In the context of a world which continues to be obsessed with scientific and technological advancement and material progress it is precisely the religious experience which lacks this sense of human relevance.

The question of belief and literature--of how far it is possible for readers to respond to a work which embodies a view of life and experience diametrically opposed to their own was extensively debated in the 1950's and 60's by such eminent figures as T.S.Eliot, Cleanth Brooks, W.K. Wimsatt, David Daiches and others (It cannot be followed in detail here, but the Note appended at the end of this Paper details some of the most significant contributions to that debate.) As one contributor to the debate has remarked, 'We are empiricists , and in so far as God is an incorrigibly non-empirical word, we find it puzzling, or more likely simply uninteresting.' (Ferre, 1968.13) While the details of the debate of the problems of belief in literature cannot be followed here, the degree of consensus that does emerge can be noted, that is, the acceptance of the idea that the acceptability of the work must depend finally on its potential to convince as the representation of a fundamentally human experience.

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