Cultural interweavings in Patrick White's Voss
Hubert Teyssandier (Université Paris 3)
Patrick White's eponymous hero, Johann Ullrich Voss, appears to have been named after another Voss, Johann Heinrich Voss, a German poet and scholar of the late 18th and early 19th century (1751-1825), and it seems unlikely that Patrick White was unaware of the existence of that other Voss. As a poet, Johann Heinrich Voss wrote sentimental idylls about middle-class life in Northern Germany, and Voss the character is also made to compose poetry, of which we have at least one specimen: his poem about "Eine blosse Seele" (1). Voss's poetry is of a distinctly esoteric type, so that its relation to Johann Heinrich's is one of contrast rather than similitude. However there is a poet in Voss the character. As a scholar the earlier Voss (who might have been the father or the grandfather of White's Voss) translated the Iliad and the Odyssey, which is not a negligible detail, since it refers back to the great epic model, with the journey out and the journey back a structure ironically duplicated in Voss, which is quoting from the novel "a journey to hell an' back" (p. 43). Voss is also about Australia and its national identity, and, out of a cultural diversity, White's novel shapes a national identity, in a way that recalls the function of the classical epic, which, in the case of Homer, asserts a national Greek identity out of a plurality of City states. In any case the concealed reference to the earlier Voss allows a reference to the epic model, which is also inscribed in the pages of the novel.
The text of Voss also bears the mark of several other literary models novelistic models in particular. It continues the tradition of the 19th century English novel, all the more visibly as its action begins in 1845, and ends close to 1870. Not only is its action contained within the Victorian period, it also represents (among others) a middle class
1. WHITE, Patrick, Voss, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1957; Harmondsworth, 1960, p. 189. All page numbers included in the text refer to the Penguin edition of Voss.
society, its social structures, its manners, in an often comic tone that continues Jane Austen and George Eliot. Voss is also related through the central motif of the journey westward (for it is made clear that Voss and his party travel westward) to the American Frontier novel, and James Fenimore Cooper's novels are it seems relevant here. In The Prairie for example (an 1827 Cooper novel), the explorers (not so daring and undaunted as Voss) attempt to become acquainted with the heart of the American continent, and move away from the safety of the coastal fringe, before retracing their steps back to the Eastern coast after getting such a glimpse of horror and cruelty that their faint hearts cannot endure. Crossing the continent from one coast to the other is an American motif, which is echoed in Voss: "I shall cross the continent from one end to the other" (p. 33). But the fate of Voss and of his fellow explorers is far more cruel than that of a Cooper explorer.
Voss is also a historical novel in the western tradition, showing a process through which a country achieves political independence. At the beginning, Sydney is part of a colony, which is ruled by a British governor, and at the end, there is a New South Wales Prime Minister. The historical line of evolution goes together with cultural change, a topic to which I shall revert.
On another plane, Voss is a poetic novel combining, in a way that recalls D.H. Lawrence, eroticism and sexual imagery and giving a mystic dimension to sexuality, so that beyond the historical framework a metaphysical dimension is introduced and made prominent.
Within this narrative form, which weaves together several novelistic forms, while adding its own specificity to this web, several cultural strains are recognisable: an English strain, a German strain, and an aboriginal strain. Weaving all these yarns together, White's writing. achieves, as in his other novels, an Australian text, a web which conveys and contains a multiple cultural identity. Also, linking together different art forms to be viewed as further Australian texts (musical texts, pictorial texts) , Patrick White renders what can only be, because of the historical situation (1841-1870), a process of emergence, the emergence of a specific cultural identity a theme that is central to the novel's design, and I believe to Patrick White's writing, taking different forms according to the historical situation in which the fictional action takes place. Riders in the Chariot, for example, deals with the Australian identity after World War II. In Voss, White represents the collapse of the imported English cultural model; he introduces a plurality of non-English languages, which leads him to raise the question of language and verbal communication; and he further weaves the web that integrates several cultures, and anchors it in the geography of the land, its sands, deserts, scrubs, rocks and dead trees, and in the lives of the different inhabitants of the land: aboriginal tribes, convicts,
ex-convicts, immigrants (old and
new), and the offspring of the originally English families born on the Australian
I. The collapse of the English cultural model
The novel starts with an image of colonial Sydney, which it builds up over the first three hundred pages a small town, with only two streets, the countryside not being far off. Something rural lingers about Sussex Street, with an occasional cock or bullock putting in an appearance. Cows are grazing on the fringes of the town, which is surrounded by vast areas of pasture land. A concentrated image of colonial Englishness appears on the occasion of the farewell ceremony, with Colonel Featherstonehaugh deputising for the governor at the leave-taking:
The scene offers us a brief glimpse of the social structure of the colony, in which it is possible to become "acceptable," which is not the same as respectable, and its Englishness, which is overemphasised, also appears to have become threatened even by the natural surroundings.
The core of the social structure includes the English merchants, prominent among them Mr Bonner, English draper, seen in one place "jingling his money and keys," a man with a considerable bank account and a large house, a wealthy, respectable and respected member of the colony. It also includes the graziers, who form the land-owning class, with the suggestion, made in the case of Angus (a member of the explorers' party), that the so-called landowners were originally land grabbers. Woburn McAllister of Woburn Park is one of the major representatives of this class, and the name he has given to his estate is an ironic reference to the seat of His Grace the Duke of Bedford. As to the military, they are represented, among others, by Tom Radclyffe, the English officer in scarlet (p. 80), with however somewhat dubious manners which may be the effect of the colony: there is coarseness in his behaviour, vulgarity in his jokes, and something distinctly overfamiliar in his display of superficial friendliness (p. 16). As to those who are socially above merchants, graziers, and officers, they include genuine English aristocrats like the de Courcy family who live in their estate of Waverley and have connections in Leicestershire, England. As to those below, they are referred to as "the doormat class", among which the Palethorpes appear as "impeccable doormats" (p. 350), lacking the drive to become rich and rise like the Bonners. The poorer immigrants, like the music master Topp, and the ex-convicts, have the same lowly social status.
The type of society represented in Voss is still definitely English in its outlook: it regards England as Home, "the Old Country"; many have the sense of not belonging in New South Wales; they display a traditionally English attitude towards foreigners, in particular towards the German Johann Ullrich Voss, which somehow recalls that of Mr Podsnap's behaviour in Dickens' Our Mutual Friend. Yet this colonial society is seen moving away from its Englishness, in particular through their flawed manners: at parties, men may ignore women while talking about sheep, which is their main field of interest; during a ball, the guests are seen bursting into the supper-room like hungry animals: " 'It is disgraceful,' laughed Mrs Bonner, 'that a gathering of individuals from genteel homes should behave like cattle.' " (p. 326).
The Englishness that has been seen disintegrating from an early stage in the novel has disappeared at the end: England no longer arouses a feeling of nostalgia, and Australia now contains a vast mixed crowd which belongs where it is; as to the earlier immigrants, Mr Sanders the grazier, Mr Bonner the merchant, and Judd the ex-convict, they have become the patriarchal figures of a social order that is no more.
II. The question of language
The arrival of Voss, who occasionally speaks in German, and whose English always sounds strange, introduces the otherness of another language, and his presence begins to disturb the process of verbal communication. Voss has indeed "peculiarities of ... speech" (p. 154). His saying to Judd "the day over to-morrow" (p. 150) may be viewed in the light of a joke, but the awkward formality in his speech seems to point to depths, well beyond the comic effect. When saying to Laura "I will come later. In perhaps one hour" (p. 10), he sounds oddly oracular. Some of his remarks to Judd sound like prophetic statements: "I will come in search of you one day" (p. 138); "I have ridden in this direction, because I have wished to see your place" (p. 149). Superficially defined as "a great lather of words" (p. 16), the German's speech sounds haughty, lordly, and possibly godly.
There comes a point when the "difficulties of language" (p. 179) become overpowering, and even more so when the first two natives, Dugald and Jackie are introduced (p. 169). From this point onward, communication becomes more and more problematic, for the two natives can only address Voss in broken English, so that they communicate through a language which is neither his nor theirs (p. 190). Thus Voss, who had so far been his own interpreter, has to rely on unreliable interpreters, who only translate what they choose to communicate. The other natives appear, and Dugald and Jackie attempt to act as interpreters, but the exchange ends in "mystery, in a concert of black silence": "No know," said Dugald (p. 206). This marks the complete breakdown of communication between Voss and the aborigines, who belong to different tribes speaking different languages. The new tribes encountered speak a language whose meaning is totally concealed.
Voss is thus led to question the validity of verbal language, and becomes impatient with languages: 'Verfluchte Sprachen!' cried the German (p. 274). He asserts the essential foreignness of all verbal languages, his own included, because their validity is restricted to the practical world, to "the trivialities of daily existence" (p. 35), to "the immaterial, material things" (p. 38):
Australia, as Voss views it, offers the opportunity to free oneself from the inessential to which language is doomed and to aim at a higher order of reality: "But in this disturbing country, so far as I have become acquainted with it already, it is possible more easily to discard the inessential and attempt the infinite" (p. 35). The infinite must and can be reached, as both Voss and the narrator assume, in another way than through language in the usual sense, through a new medium, which Patrick White explores and attempts to articulate.
III. The Australian text
In Voss, Patrick White interweaves different threads of spirituality, while at the same time integrating the Australian land into his textual web. He integrates the discovery of an aboriginal form of spirituality, that is the religious beliefs belonging to another culture:
This invisible seed-shaped soul which is seen here soaring skywards refers to the souls of all the dead, whose countless multitude inhabits the outback. and whose invisible presences float among the aborigines and the explorers. So that, at his death, Voss's soul goes to join the other souls, and becomes part of this community of spirits that hover between sky and land in the heart of the Australian continent. In the cave where Voss discovers, painted on the walls, the main figures of the aboriginal mythology, as well as "an assembly of tortuous skeletons, bundles and blowing feathers" (p. 274), Jackie once again makes the gesture which describes the way the soul takes its flight after death, and to the image of the soaring seed/soul, Voss associates another image, that of the kites of his childhood, which he watched soaring skywards and sometimes breaking their strings:
Invisible, vanishing seeds and kites refer to the insubstantial spiritual presences, with whom no human language can communicate, and which can only be named through the metaphors that form the basis of the novel's poetic language.
At the same time as it leads to the discovery of aboriginal spirituality, the text of Voss leads to the rediscovery of a genuine form of Christian spirituality, for which there is no place in the materialistic world of Sydney, where the Anglican church is no more than a social institution. The rediscovery occurs at the time of Voss's death, when he frees himself of his insane pride, his belief in his own omnipotence and Godliness, and becomes aware of his human limits:
The comet, which is seen both by Laura in Sydney, as a blaze of celestial light, and by the aborigines in the outback, where it figures the original deity, "The Great Snake, the grandfather of all men" provides the linking image between the two forms of spirituality, thus brought together in the oneness of a vision which integrates two cultural worlds and unites Voss and Laura.
The poetic statement of this rediscovered spirituality which weaves a link between Sydney and the outback is to be found in Voss's poem in German:
2. "A bare soul rode out / Into the blue. / His coat flew free. / His white horse contested with the clouds / For the honour of which was whiter. Only the fine coat came to grief, The tatters fell / Along the sky." Trad. John & Rose Marie Beston, "The Theme of Spiritual Progression in Voss", Ariel, V (1 974), p. 101.
Voss's poem, which he is heard singing as he goes along on horseback, is a cryptic epitome of the built-in spirituality of the whole novel, of its attempt to give a literary form to an essential truth to the ultimate truth.
However, as opposed to Voss's poem, the novel contains its whole weight of matter and putrefying flesh, as well as the geographical reality of the Australian land, which is made to work in a symbolic way. For in spite of its obvious quest pattern, Voss is more complex than a traditional allegory, although allegory is basically present as a simple supporting structure. Voss's journey takes him to hell, and hell is the place of illumination. The novel may as a whole be viewed as an Australian rewriting, in a highly complexified Romantic way, of some kind of Pilgrim's Progress.
In its concluding chapter, the text summons other "texts," other artistic achievements, which, whatever their individual artistic value, work in conjunction with the novel in which they are embedded in the form of allusions. So that, ultimately, a system of specular relations between literature and other arts (music, painting), is seen operating and sketching an overall artistic context. Topp dreams of, or thinks he can hear, a new type of music, a sort of Australian symphony, whose harmonies he would have composed out of the reality of the Australian land and which he would be conducting before an Australian audience: "Of rock and scrub. Of winds curled invisibly in wombs of air. Of thin rivers struggling towards seas of eternity. All flowing and uniting. Over a bed of upturned faces" (p. 446). William Pringle, who has been studying painting, in Europe and is now back in Sydney, enthuses over a creativeness which raises Australia well above the mediocrity which Topp views as the main obstacle to artistic greatness:
As it draws to its close, the text of Voss points to the emergence of an Australian cultural identity, as distinct from an English cultural identity, integrating elements from different cultures. Voss's death may possibly be viewed as the founding murder which has made possible this new integrated identity.
Voss, like other Patrick White novels, is a contribution to the Great Australian text, interweaving many yarns, both indigenous and foreign and is meant to be much more than the representation of a referential Australia. The text is indeed meant to be epiphanic.
Whether the epiphanic truth has actually been glimpsed is a question whose answer belongs to the unsaid to what has not been told, or not been heard, or not been understood, although the epiphanic words may be floating everywhere in mid-air. As Laura Trevelyan has it: 'The air will tell us'.