Academic journal article ARIEL

The Evolution of Artistic Faith in Patrick White's Riders in the Chariot

Academic journal article ARIEL

The Evolution of Artistic Faith in Patrick White's Riders in the Chariot

Article excerpt

  Today nobody will stop at faith; they all go further. It would
  perhaps be rash to inquire where to, but surely a mark of urbanity
  and good breeding on my part to assume that in fact everyone does
  indeed have faith, otherwise it would be odd to talk of going
  further. (Kierkegaard 42)

Patrick White said he wanted to write a novel about "saints"--those who ride invisibly in the Chariot of faith as "apostles of truth" (qtd. in Malouf 13). At the centre of the hook Riders in the Chariot Himmelfarb the Jew expresses his frustration at being unable to visualize the riders, the hidden zaddikim (Riders 172); it was a question also formulated by Kierkegaard as he speculated in Fear and Trembling on the possibility of what strange 'movements of infinity' might lie concealed within the ordinary man in the street, such as the pipe-smoking cheesemonger as he "vegetated in the dusk" (42). Kierkegaard felt he himself did not have faith, but that the Hegelians--the objects of his satire--who believed they were "going further" by means of a dialectic of compromise, had in fact not yet attained this state of half-knowledge. The world of ethics and reasoning is not that of faith and spirituality, which is both ordinary and inscrutable. Like Kierkegaard's cheesemonger, White's Mrs Godbold knows "the grey hours when the world evolves," and "the wheels of her Chariot are solid gold" (Riders 73); and Mary Hare, in her mystical union with nature, sees in the colours of sunset the "swingeing trace-chains of light" when the wheels "plough the fields of tranquil sky" (25). White's ambitious tapestry of imagery is founded on the evocation of such moments of dusky or smoky indirect communication, as his riders recreate through their interweaving yet distinct lives the story of the Crucifixion against the backdrop of a broad canvas ranging from Eden to apocalypse. In this context, I shall suggest, the Chariot-deity that revolves between heaven and earth becomes the governing aegis not only of the riders but also of the novelist, (1) as he puts his trust in the meaningful relationship of his disparate materials--a relationship that will have the power to evoke a sense of the ethereal.

There would appear to be a renewed interest in the work of Patrick White, after a period of relative neglect (Malouf 12-13). My own article relates to the continuing debate in White studies about the degree to which his vision evolves organically from his artistic materials, or to what extent it is superimposed, a "design too palpable" (Colmer 288), "too contrived for comfort" (Steven 79). White was himself suspicious of schematic interpretations of his work, presumably owing to the dangers of reductionism; though his writing with its allegorical flavour and its wealth of theological, poetic and metaphysical references does understandably invite such interpretations and gives them legitimacy. Gavin D'Costa has described the way in which the three riders could be seen as representing three religious traditions which are then synthesized within that of the fourth rider, the artist. (2) I would like to further suggest that all the riders in fact embody aspects of the artistic struggle for realization, and gradually link up into a coherent picture as the novel itself progresses. They all live on the fringes of social acceptability, yet each has a specific contribution to make to the spirituality of the social fabric: Mary Hare with her enhanced observation of natural process; Himmelfarb with his analytical powers; Mrs Godbold with her endurance and practicality; Alf Dubbo with his ability to mingle emotional colours into harmonious patterns. This sketchmap of artistic characteristics is White's starting-point for a deeper investigation. As the characters develop and interweave, in response to contact with the Chariot, they generate insights which form part of a more comprehensive vision of artistic activity. My aim is to detail the extent to which White's immersion in his symbolic materials forms the basis for a complex synthesis of emotional links which could be termed "artistic faith. …

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