Academic journal article Antipodes

"Verbal Sludge": Mud and Malleability in the Novels of Patrick White

Academic journal article Antipodes

"Verbal Sludge": Mud and Malleability in the Novels of Patrick White

Article excerpt

Hardly anything can strike the mind with its greatness, which does not make some sort of approach toward infinity; which nothing can do whibt able to perceive its bounds; but to see an object distinctly, and to perceive its bounds, is one and the same thing. A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea.

- Edmund Burke


DURING CHRISTMAS OF 195 1 , PATRICK WHITE EXPERIENCED a spiritual awakening. David Marr writes in his biography Patrick White: A Life:

White was carrying bowls of slops to a litter of wormy pups. Somewhere between the jacaranda and the old piggery he slipped in the mud. Swearing and laughing he dragged himself to his feet. "I stood in the rain, the water up to my ankles, and pouring off me, as I proceeded to curse God." But could he curse what did not exist? As he puzzled at this, he had an inkling of the presence of God. "Faith began to come to me." (Marr 281)

Or, in White's words: "During a season of unending rain at Castle Hill when 1 fell flat on my back one day in the mud and started cursing a God I had convinced myself didn't exist. My personal scheme of things till then at once seemed too foolish to continue holding" (Herring 137).

Marr explains that while White's spiritual interest had been latent prior to this experience, he had always held a desire to "melt, to merge, to disappear into the landscape" (282). The moment in which he plunged into the formless mud provided "that consummation in his own shabby paddock" (282). The specific conditions of this conversion shaped the nature of his distinctly mystical religious beliefs: in the personal correspondence and fiction that followed, White repeatedly suggests that God is found not in churches, but by grubbing in muckheaps. In such places the "purity" of individual distinctness is lost, and one experiences a partial union - necessarily imperfect - with the divine. Unlike strictly ascetic mystics, White does not go so far as to suggest that the partite structure of the physical world is an illusion. Skins exist, but they are not impenetrable. It is not belief in the self, but in the impregnable self, that must be overcome.

White's experience of self-dissolution in the storm textured much of his subsequent work. In Voss, for example, the title character experiences a similar revelation: "he was running into crannies, and sucked into the mouths of the earth, and disputed, and distributed" (249). The central epiphany in The Eye of the Storm, too, reflects White's experience: "[TJo be received into the sand along with other deliquescent flesh, strewn horsehair, knotted iron, the broken chassis of an upturned car, and the last echoes of a hamstrung piano, is the most natural conclusion" (410). The first such moment in White's fiction occurs in The Tree o/ Man, the novel that immediately followed White's own conversion:

The storm came. It bent the garden. Large flat drops of rain were plastering the leaves and hard earth. Soon the land was shining whenever lightning opened its darkness. That torment of darkness, of lashing, twisted trees, became, rather, an ecstasy of fulfillment.

The man who was watching the storm, and who seemed to be sitting right at the centre of it, was at first exultant. Like his own dry paddocks, his skin drank the rain. He folded his wet arms, and this attitude added to his complacency. He was firm and strong. [. . .] But as the storm increased, his flesh had doubts, and he began to experience humility. The lightning, which could have struck open basalt, had, it seemed, the power to open souls. It was obvious in the yellow flash that something like this had happened, the flesh had slipped from his bones, and a light was shining in his cavernous skull. [...]

In his new humility, weakness and acceptance had become virtues. [. . .] As the rain sluiced his lands and the fork of lightning entered the crests of the trees. The darkness was full of wonder. Standing there somewhat meekly, the man could have loved something, someone, if he could have penetrated beyond the wood, beyond the moving darkness. …

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