Academic journal article The Comparatist

The Forces of Habit and the Ethics of Self-Composture in Patrick White's Fiction

Academic journal article The Comparatist

The Forces of Habit and the Ethics of Self-Composture in Patrick White's Fiction

Article excerpt

In an early passage from Patrick White's novel The Twyborn Affair (1979), the protagonist offers a spirited defense of the odors that waft from a man's body: "Even what you call their smelly smells can have a perverse charm. The smell of an old man, for instance. So many layers of life lived--such a compost!" (52). The metaphor of compost for accumulated life experience is quintessential White, drawing inspiration from the natural world, but also celebrating its grossness rather than its supposed purity. (1) It also represents a peculiar way of thinking about the "layers of life lived," which might be more conventionally represented as inscriptions upon the body (e.g. the lines on the face that tell a story) or as hard geological layers, solidly encrusted around a stable core. Compost is layered, but the layers are loosely assembled, shifting as the organic matter decomposes and the pile recomposes itself accordingly.

Tellingly, the novel's protagonist delivers this paean to self-as-compost while living as Eudoxia Vatatzes, partner to a wealthy older Greek man; however, she was born as Eddie Twyborn, an identity she later reassumes when living in rural Australia as a jackaroo, before heading back to Europe to live as a brothel owner named Eadith Trist. In The Twyborn Affair, as in many of White's novels, the protagonist lives a remarkably varied life and, rather than undergoing a linear trajectory of development, makes dramatic adjustments when adapting to a series of new environments. Even today, this is a fairly radical notion; when I read The Twyborn Affair, I initially assumed it was out of chronological order, because I could not conceive that the Eudoxia we encounter in the first section, who seems so comfortable living as a woman, would later go back to living as a man. White's protagonists, however, never make that kind of clean break with their past identities; Eudoxia is able to pull remnants of Eddie out of the self-compost heap, just as Eddie is later able to retrieve some pieces of Eudoxia and move them toward the surface layer when assuming (or, rather, assembling) the identity of Eadith Trist.

In this essay, I want to explore this notion of self-composture--treating the self as an ever-growing, ever-shifting compost heap of memories, personas, and habits. Since I want to place a special emphasis on the importance of habit, I will be focusing on the novel that White published immediately before The Twyborn Affair, A Fringe of Leaves (1976), which foregrounds how habits are integral to the various personas the protagonist assumes. Moreover, what makes A Fringe of Leaves worthy of special scrutiny is its depiction of two distinct types of habit. For one, it represents the kinds of disciplinary habits that have given "habit" a bad name among many theorists; Ellen Roxburgh (nee Gluyas), the novel's protagonist, uses these to maintain self-composure when moving from humble beginnings as a Cornish farmgirl to a "sheltered life" wedded to a wealthy gentleman in early-nineteenth century England. However, the novel also dwells on Ellen's bad habits--the habits that Ellen herself rues as lapses in self-discipline--with the ironic twist that these very bad habits enable Ellen to psychologically weather a series of ordeals that leave her shipwrecked, widowed, and held captive by an Aboriginal tribe in the Australian wilderness. Furthermore, I want to consider how these particular "bad habits"--the ones that help Ellen absorb sudden shocks and adapt to alien environments--might be understood as habits of self-composture and thus be contrasted with the more familiar habits of self-composure.

When critical theorists discuss habit, they are usually referring to a practice that supports the status quo, something that must be resisted in order to affect systemic change. In "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," Louis Althusser famously cites a line from Pascal--"'Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe'"--to demonstrate how habitual practices serve to entrench dominant ideologies. …

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