Worlding Options: Conflation of Personal and Physical Space in Patrick White’s Novels

Diganta Bhattacharya

Independent Scholar

Volume 7, Number 3, 2015 I Full Text PDF


Great texts that have accrued literary renown over the years and across space, time and genre, are those that are able to project universal sentiments. But simultaneously these texts feature a conscious engagement with the constituent space(s) that are unique to their creation or generation. Every text, then, as it naturally appears, has its singular framework or modality of engagement(s) with space. This article seeks to illustrate how Australian novelist Patrick White’s novels enshrine philosophical, and sometimes metaphysical explorations of the nature of spatiality that the self has to contend with as an unavoidable burden of living itself and clarify the singular, pivotal role that spatiality plays in determining individual responses to specific situations and decision-making processes.

Keywords: Patrick White, spatiality, Australian, The Solid Mandala, Riders in the Chariot, The Eye of the Storm, The Twyborn Affair, 

If novels can be credited with the status of being modern-day epics, satisfying the requirement for a sustained narrative that would capture the life and milieu of a certain ethnic unit occupying a specific time-space in its multifaceted entirety, then it has to be epical in scope as well, something that can with conviction be identified as the unmistakable representation of a culture at a definitive stage of development. Oftener than not the cultural component of the abovementioned pattern possesses a national characteristic which then becomes the result and simultaneously, the representation of both what the writer experiences as he engages actively with the national life, and what he would envision as the desired form of nation. The nation being chiefly an ideational or notional concept in its inception and gradual maturation, what the expression really boils down to is a confused spectrum: an arbitrary ensemble of different forces and factors that can neither be organized using a specific epistemological method, nor be perceived as a uniform totality. Different modalities of engagement begin to emerge as ways of coming to terms with the object of representation, necessitating representational techniques that go far beyond mimetic method and aspire to include modes that would, hopefully, arrest individual consciousness with all its quirks and twists and oddities and idiosyncrasies. What chiefly become relatable in terms of the representational variables and associated techniques are obviously Modernist and Post-modernist textual as well as narratorial playfulness and experimentations as exemplified in sufficiently ‘innovative’ texts like those by Woolf or Fowles or Rushdie. But novels like To a Lighthouse or French Lieutenant’s Woman or Midnight’s Children are both approached and consumed and understood as what they fundamentally are: aesthetic objects with a promised unique treatment that renders it possible for those texts to be perceived as avant-garde creations.

A typical canonical text like the ones mentioned are now comfortably identified as belonging to a generic, formulaic category that coincides with the cultural expression of certain period(s). Due to the element of interruption that these texts produce in terms of breaking away from a customary mode of narration, they have come to symbolize an aesthetic movement, preoccupied with a predominantly scholarly-intellectual perspective that, being chiefly motivated by subjective responses to a societal situation multiply influenced by events taking place worldwide, cuts across national divides. The individuality and uniqueness of the perception of one Stephen Daedalus, for instance, could have easily been that of a disillusioned New Yorker or a neurotic Parisian, entrapped in the self-imposed shackles of their own overworked psyche, hysteric in their attempts at wrenching some sort of context out of an endless series of inert images that life appeared to be during the great Wars or immediately after them. In other words, these are great art-objects that, through the projection and representation of trans-national sentiments, aspire to capture moment(s) of crisis, of indecision and of transformation that may not necessarily be tied to either a slice or a totality of what can, in the absence of a more applicable phrase, be referred to as national life or situation. A fiction, therefore, needs to possess a few distinguishing features if it seeks to be consumed as a text that projects itself as inseparable from its national belongingness. The features include first and foremost, and that is a theoretical premise of this essay, an active and conscious engagement with the national space; a concept which, if understood in terms of its constructedness, draws attention to an ensemble of constituent space-s: the domestic space, the social space, the political-financial space, the cultural-academic space, the rural-urban space, and the most fundamental of them all, the personal space and the physical space.

Active engagement with one’s spatiality can assume different modalities of accomplishing that objective, but the dynamic that never changes is that between the subject’s unique consciousness and the specific spatial situation that the subject happens to inhabit at a particular point in time. The result is a unique, discrete, subject-specific spatiality for every individual consciousness; a construction that is in no ambiguous way directly related to his/her national belongingness. The essential relationship between historically and ethnically organized space appropriated into a territory and altered for societal purposes and a putative ‘national identity’ can be satisfactorily illustrated from the following passage:

“…wherever they went Europeans immediately began to change the local habitat; their conscious aim was to transform territories in places as far away from Europe as South America and Australia into images of what they left behind… This process was never ending, as a huge number of plants, animals, crops, and farming as well as building methods invaded the colony and gradually turned it into a new place…A changed ecology also introduced a changed political system…”

Those texts are indeed remarkable in which this elaborate, albeit intricate dynamic has been delineated to such an extent that the construction of the idea of the national space, a concept always being de- and re-constructed through the ever-shifting subjective perception of its own spatiality, becomes, in effect, an extension of the experiencing self. As a fictional construct, precisely due to its exemption from genre-specific representational constraints, novel is relatively at more liberty to represent this interactive framework and its theoretical-philosophical as well as individual-collective implications in a more comprehensive way. Undeniably, in the hand of a skillful master of the craft, a novel is able to expound those layers of individual consciousness and its engagement with individual spatiality that ultimately constitutes the act of living. Patrick White’s novels meticulously and systematically achieve this very effect: the texts become representation of exceptional consciousness trapped in and encumbered by unique spatiality, and of the ways the individual who cannot opt out of his/her physical spatiality learns, instead, to come to terms with it, to properly understand and sublimate it in a certain sense…Full Text PDF

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