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The Infinite in Everything: Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot

During my childhood in Castle Hill, a western Sydney suburb of housing developments, colonial weatherboards and bush blocks, I walked each week from school to piano lessons. The route took me down Showground Road where Patrick White and his partner Manoly bought six acres and a bungalow—‘a bit of Strathfield in a paddock’—in 1948. They named their house Dogwoods, and lived there for eighteen years.

On my piano teacher’s porch at Cecil Avenue I’d wait, listening as she chastised another student for crimes against adagio, or the chromatic scale. Miss Dawn Loomes might well have been named by White: her Venetianed front room was dusky and cool, her shadow swooped up as she policed the hands of her students. Sometimes I’d emerge from her post-war red brick, accompanied by a sound I could not fathom. This sensation of something just beyond my reach would accompany me as I walked home past Dogwoods, and along Old Northern Road. I turned off at Church Street, passing a mysterious, stately white house which I later learned was the Castle Hill Boys Home.

Whenever I recall my life in that sober-seeming suburb I think of the wolf note—a variation in sound produced by an instrument’s natural imperfections. I think of the note’s deviated tone, its eccentric resonance when I remember some family stories told in that setting; stories that contained more silence than speaking. I once heard a psychologist describe Sydney’s outer suburbs after the war. Along with the returned soldiers were newly arrived refugees, nearly all struggling with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress. Perhaps this accounts for the sensation I often had in that place. Its polite, yet evacuated veneer seemed to overcompensate for wilder, internal forces. This awareness arises when I consider the four outsiders in White’s Riders in the Chariot, who each deviate from the prevailing (narrow, hypocritical and falsely pious) values of their surroundings. By giving voice to their eccentricities, White shows us some forms of suffering that were deliberately, or unconsciously repressed. Yet the same tendencies that cause the four ‘riders’ to be outcast will ultimately unite them as they share an apprehension of a realm beyond the everyday.

White began attending St Paul’s Church after a visionary experience during a summer of fires and storms in 1951. One rainy afternoon, writes David Marr in Patrick White, a Life, White slipped in mud ‘somewhere between the jacaranda and the old piggery’ at Dogwoods. ‘I stood in the rain, the water up to my ankles, and pouring off me, as I proceeded to curse God,’ White recalled. Though he was not a believer, he suddenly sensed a divine presence and this revelation flowed into his books with their preoccupation with secular faith and mysticism.

White was never one for organised religion, and soon the ‘comic prudery’ of St Paul’s repelled him. Marr wryly notes that ‘Pat-the-balloon was introduced on Fellowship nights to fight the profane temptation of dancing’ and at the annual church fete, ‘guess the number of beans in the jar contests were forbidden’ because they were considered a form of gambling. Of all religions White was most attracted to Judaism, but considered it absurd ‘for someone not a Jew to bundle into it’. For White, ‘churches destroy the mystery of God’; it was the act of writing that allowed him to ‘evolve symbols of my own through which to worship’.

It was during his life in Castle Hill and this phase of grappling with the forms of his faith, that White wrote Riders in the Chariot, his sixth novel and the first of several in which the suburb is fictionalised. White called it Sarsaparilla, after the temperance drink and medicinal herb.

In White’s day the district was a village surrounded by land on which convicts had once failed to grow coffee and cotton. Before then, the area was inhabited by the Dharug clan, who were decimated by the 1798 smallpox epidemic. In 1804 during the Castle Hill Rebellion, fifteen insurgent convicts were killed, nine executed, and two hung in chains, or ‘gibbeted’ on a road outside Parramatta. Seven received up to five hundred lashes.

Whether or not he was aware of these events (the gibbeting in particular is echoed in the crucifixion of one of Riders’ characters), Castle Hill was already a backdrop to violence, displacement and disease long before White set his novel there. We know that White was keenly attuned to local histories. ‘Did you hear about the murder in Castle Hill?’ he writes to a friend in 1959. A farmer had strangled, then shot his wife, and later attempted to drown himself at Manly. White noted the following, underlining, ‘Both of them strict Methodists’. Religion could not inoculate against brutality—this too is one of Riders’ preoccupations.

During the late 1970s when I lived there, Castle Hill was rapidly expanding. ‘Demonstration homes’ shimmered up overnight along the main road—each with perpetually wet front lawns, still seamed from where they’d been unrolled—and uncannily pristine interiors. It is the dream represented by such immaculate houses that takes hold of the Jewish Rosetree family in Riders. But the Rosetrees’ pursuit of the quintessential Australian home can neither compensate for the loss of their former homeland, nor diminish a terror of identifying with it. Having been expelled from Nazi Germany for being Jewish they become in Riders, doubly guilty, for desperately trying not to be.

In the Castle Hill of White’s day there was a post office, a few shops with dusty verandahs, a couple of churches and a hall. Though there were some large estates on ‘millionaire’s Row’ (said to be the model for Miss Hare’s home, Xanadu), there was, notes Marr in his characteristic deadpan, ‘no Castle’.

Riders in the Chariot centres on four visionaries, each outcast or exiled in some way from their formative environments: Mrs Godbold from the flat fen country of England; Alf Dubbo from his home on an outback reserve after he is forcibly removed from his mother; Miss Hare a child recluse within her dysfunctional family; Mordecai Himmelfarb, a Holocaust survivor from Germany. They are juxtaposed with the more conforming citizens of Sarsaparilla, but while all their fates become intertwined, only the chosen four share an intimation of the divine unity underlying the everyday. White referred to his protagonists as ‘the Riders’, after the chariot seen by the exiled Old Testament prophet Ezekiel—a potent symbol of heavenly ascension in Jewish mysticism. One early strand of this mysticism focuses on ecstatic experience and is literally called Chariot (Merkavah) Mysticism. In a letter to his American agent in 1959, White described the novel: ‘What I want to emphasize through my four “riders”…is that all faiths, religious humanistic, instinctive or the creative artist’s act of praise are in fact one’.

White was long gone from Castle Hill when I moved there, aged six, and lived for a decade with my family. By then the suburb’s churchiness had amplified—it was known as Sydney’s Bible Belt—and though I passed St Paul’s every day, and nearly all my friends attended Sunday school, I never entered a church. Partly because of this exclusion, belief seemed to me all the more desirable, but I later realised what I really longed for was the cultural heritage from which such rituals arose. Both ritual and any sense of ancestry were absent, yet invisibly present in my family’s life. I sensed their residue in heirlooms—the broken brass menorah, the linen embroidered with my great grandmother’s initials, the elaborate cabinet of silverware that might once have been laid for Shabbat dinners—forsaken in their drawers and cabinets.

Also absent and present were my grandmother’s stories of her life in Germany, with their pauses and lapses and, cutting through the nostalgia, her uncontrollable tone. Riders has become talismanic for me partly because it illuminates a shadowy personal history. It has informed and shaped two inextricable poles of my self—as the grandchild of Jewish refugees, and as a writer.

I didn’t know anything back then, of White’s work or his past in Castle Hill. But years later, when I read Riders with its themes of exile and displacement, of shared but unspoken intimations, and its acute portrait of Jewish refugees, I came to recognise the suburb as a backdrop to traumatic events that had occurred elsewhere. Through the characters Mordecai Himmelfarb and Harry and Shirl Rosetree I understood formerly shadowy elements of my family’s history—the annihilating drive to assimilate, the insistent presence of the dead. It’s through these refugee stories that White’s novel, writes Veronica Brady, links Australia ‘to the larger story of the Holocaust’. Similarly, the account of Aboriginal Alf Dubbo, sexually abused by an Anglican reverend, evokes a national history of forced removal, institutional abuse and colonisation. This latter thread seems remarkably prescient given that revelations of the Stolen Generation’s trauma and suffering are still unfolding fifty years after White depicted it in Riders.

Much excellent work has been published about White’s representations of suburban life—and I’m guided in my thinking by Veronica Brady’s astute perception that White’s interest in suburbia was ‘part of a spiritual, rather than a social condition’. Brady situates Riders within an international response by thinkers and writers to the ‘spiritual crisis’ that emerged after the horrors of the second world war, a crisis that demanded new artistic forms and approaches to representing questions of good and evil, guilt and survival.

From the very beginning, with its epigraph on the prophet Ezekiel, Riders alerts us to its interest in ‘the infinite in everything’; in the metaphysical. This is intensified by White’s use of elevated language to describe events that are firmly rooted in the everyday—we see the Jew in ‘mineral splendour’; ‘consecrated’ on his journey; Alf Dubbo’s hands ‘gilded with his own gold’; ‘benedictions of light and water’; ‘light smote the ragged bushes’—we’re continuously reminded of an ineffable dimension beyond the familiar, solid shapes of suburbia.

In the novel’s first pages we meet Miss Mary Hare, ‘a small, freckled thing’ in a wicker hat that gives her the ‘look of a sunflower or an old basket coming to pieces’. Reclusive Mary lives in the crumbling Xanadu, a formerly grand estate owned by her white settler family. Since her parents’ death the house has given way to its surroundings:

Old birds’ nests, lying on the Aubusson, or what had become, rather, a carpet of twigs, dust, mildew and the chrysalides of insects…On one side of the dining-room where weather had torn the slates from an embrasure…an elm had entered…In places the rain had gushed, in others trickled, down the walls and over marble, now the colour of rotten teeth.

This encroachment suits the creaturely, elemental Miss Hare—an Erdgeist (earth spirit) as White calls her. She’s happiest in her Eden-like garden, losing herself in rites ‘both humdrum and worshipful’, offering milk to a snake that has issued from the foundations. When Miss Hare meets Alf Dubbo, the Aboriginal artist who roams the suburb, the pair are described as ‘illuminates… peacefully folded inside the envelopes of their flesh… From behind closed eyelids each would have recognised the other as an apostle of truth.’

When the novel begins, Miss Hare has just appointed a housekeeper, the bossy Melbourne widow Mrs Jolley. She will be the first of several intruders whose presence in the novel results in psychological disturbance, fear and violence. Mrs Jolley is respectable, churchgoing, a woman who,

…sang and baked. She loved to sing the pinker hymns. She would even sing those of which she did not know the words. She sang and baked. And saw pink. She loved the Jesus Christ of long pink face and languid curls, in words and windows. All was right then. All the homes and kiddies saved. All was sanctified by cake.

Sanctified shares its Latin root sanctus (holy) with sanctimonious, which Mrs Jolley is soon revealed to be. White’s novel continually reminds us of the fine line between holy and holier than thou, but also—note those ‘pinker hymns’—he shows us what pleasure the stitched-up Mrs Jolley draws from the baroque rituals of the church.

Not long after Mrs Jolley’s arrival, Miss Hare realises her mistake:

At what stage she had begun to fear Mrs Jolley, Miss Hare was not sure, though she thought it probably dated from the morning when the housekeeper had presented her with a pink cake, and on it written, really most beautifully in fancy script: For a Bad Girl.

Miss Hare ‘did not fear for her person…But she did sense some danger to the incorporeal, the more significant part of her…the world had revolved on the axis with which she had provided it, until Mrs Jolley brought the virtues to Xanadu.’

When Mrs Jolley joins forces with a fellow widow, Mrs Flack, the pair become suburban demons masquerading as upright citizens. Mrs Flack embodies the assimilationist ethos of the 1950s when the novel is set, remarking,

I would not of thought it would of come to this…a stream of foreign migrants pouring into the country and our boys many of them not yet returned…Who will feed us, I would like to know, when we are so many mouths over, and foreign mouths…

Mrs Flack’s diatribes prefigure the contemporary shock jock; together with Mrs Jolley she broadcasts the novel’s anti-immigration refrain, one that has hardly dated in the sixty years since.

With their self-righteous piety and conforming edicts, the pair represent the religious establishment that White railed against. Such figures in White’s work are sometimes seen as caricatures, but seem quite deliberately theatrical. Both baroque and burlesque, they remind us that identity is a series of acts that hide as much as they reveal. White himself suggests this aspect of the novel when in Part Seven he describes the empty house Xanadu as ‘a stage set for a play of divine retribution’.

By the novel’s end the two widows are condemned to live in growing terror, surveilling each other in a shared house. We learn then of their own scandalous (by their own standards) histories—Mrs Flack has raised a child, Blue, out of wedlock. Blue, ‘primarily a torso, an Antinous of the suburbs’—is the drunken thug who incites a violent mob later in the novel.

Below the crumbling Xanadu, in a shack, lives Mrs Godbold, the novel’s most saintly figure, a poor washerwoman with six children, and an abusive, alcoholic husband. Mrs Godbold is large, maternal: ‘Strangled by the arms of a weaned child, she was seldom it seemed without a second baby greedy at her breast, and a third impatient in her body.’ She is most often tending to the needs of others: her children, the tubercular Alf Dubbo who frequents the same prostitutes as her husband, and Himmelfarb when he is gravely injured at the factory where both men work. Mrs Godbold had once nursed Miss Hare through pneumonia and witnessed her vision of a fiery chariot. This Biblical motif around which White structures his novel—the vehicle that transports God from the temple of Jerusalem—carries the novel’s themes of exile and transcendence. The ‘shared secret’ and its mystical, half-glimpsed content, unites Miss Hare and Mrs Godbold, and later, the two other protagonists.

In Part Five we meet Alf Dubbo, a mixed-race Aboriginal man, taken as a child from his Numburra home by the Anglican reverend who will sexually abuse him. Dubbo’s imagery is painterly, fervid and sensory. He recalls the town where he was raised, the ‘dark banks of the brown river, with its curtain of shiny foliage’ the ‘orange knuckles of the big bamboos’, the native trees which seemed at dusk to ‘sweat a deeper green.’ During his childhood Alf encounters the watercolours of Apollo and his Chariot by French symbolist Odilon Redon: ‘In the picture the chariot rose, behind the wooden horses, along the pathway of the sun. The god’s arm… lit the faces of the four figures, so stiff, in the body of the tinny chariot…’ This work assumes great symbolic power for Dubbo who returns to it again in his painting throughout the novel.

Some of the novel’s most impressively detailed passages centre on Himmelfarb the German Jewish intellectual. White studied Judaism while writing Riders, particularly the work of the mystic scholar Gerschom Scholem and as Marr details in his biography, he also attended Synagogue during this time, making several Jewish friends: Klari Daniel, who’d bought her way off a train to Auschwitz, and Fritz Krieger, a factory owner who pretended not to be Jewish. (Marr notes that it’s odd that White never asked about their time in concentration camps nor spoke of his own period in Hitler’s Germany before and during the war. Yet it seems equally plausible to me that these subjects, still raw, might have remained largely in the private domain.)

The epic, minutely detailed account of Himmelfarb’s life, which spans his childhood in a north German town, his education in England, his academic life, his lapses in belief, a period of hiding and persecution under Nazism, his escape and travel to Jerusalem, was remarkable for its time. When White began writing in 1958, there was very little literature in English on the Holocaust—Walter Kaufman’s Voices in the Storm had appeared in 1953 but Primo Levi’s If this is a Man was not published in English till 1959. Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night appeared in English in 1960, the film Night and Fog in 1955, and Borowski’s This Way to the Gas in 1967.

After his wife Reha is detained by the Nazis, Himmelfarb goes into hiding, and will later narrowly escape death in a concentration camp. When the war is over, he travels to Palestine, and visits relatives on a Jerusalem kibbutz. But he will choose to settle in Australia ‘possibly because it was the farthest, perhaps also bitterest’. He will cast himself out, settling in a broken house in Sarsaparilla. In nearby Barranugli (Baulkham Hills), he takes a job at the Brighta bike factory run by Harry Rosetree, a fellow Jew and Holocaust survivor. But Harry and his wife Shirl have enthusiastically embraced the country’s assimilationist ethos, interring their Jewish identity within their texture brick home with ‘the streamlined glass car, the advanced shrubs, the grandfather clock with the Westminster chimes, the walnut-veneer radiogram, the washing machine, and the mix-master’. The Rosetree scenes are full of such lists, cataloguing the couple’s materialism and the brief amnesiac glow cast by their acquisitions. In these passages White also witheringly deploys the rhetorical question, reinforcing the Rosetree’s hunger for approval:

Rosetrees lived at 15 Persimmon Street, Paradise East [note the Biblical in the nouveau setting], in a texture-brick home—city water, no sewerage, but their own septic. Telephone, of course. Who could get through the morning without the telephone? It was already quite a good address, and would improve, but then the Rosetrees would probably move on, to realise the land. Because what was land—such nasty, sandy, scrubby stuff—if not an investment?

As Hannah Arendt described it, life under Nazism meant German Jews often felt they’d already lived in ‘unconscious exile’, before they experienced actual physical displacement from their homelands. Writing about the increased Nazification of public space, the withdrawal of work, home and homeland for Jews in Germany, Hans Reichmann called himself and fellow Jews Luftmenschen, people of the air. Victor Klemperer, ashamed to wear the yellow star in public, resigned to staying home, a space he called ‘eng’ (narrow). For Walter Adamson, Holocaust survivor and author, arrival in Port Melbourne produced the feeling ‘that I had not arrived, but had been expelled from the world’. The Holocaust, he says, ‘destroyed my ability to belong’.

It is this tension between exile and belonging that White explores through Himmelfarb and the Rosetrees. Each represent the two poles of the Jewish exile’s experience. At night the Rosetrees’ ‘dream home’ becomes nightmarish as the repressed return.

There in the dark of their texture-brick shell, surrounded by the mechanical objects of value, Shirl and Harry Rosetree were changed mercilessly back into Shulamith and Haim Rosenbaum. Oy-yoy, how brutally the Westminster chimes resounded then in the hall. A mouse could have severed the lifeline with one Lilliputian snap.

The Rosetrees’ cult of the domestic embodies the kind of ‘unreflective nostalgia’ that Svetlana Boym describes in her superb The Future of Nostalgia. It attempts to repair a longing for the former home with a fervent belonging to the new one; to replace loss with a new national identity. This form of nostalgia, Boym notes, ‘puts an end to mutual understanding’. At his factory, Harry negotiates a dinner party menu with his wife on the phone: ‘What you have decided for the epple pie? But I wish the Torte! Not for Arch, nor Marge, nor anybody else, will I never assimilate the epple pie’. Harry’s nostalgia stretches only as far as pastry; when he notices Himmelfarb, he’s visited by ‘a latent misery of his own, of which he had never been quite able to dispose’, a misery that assumes ‘vast proportions, like a heap of naked, suppurating corpses… his considerable business acumen would never rid him of the heap of bodies.’

The Rosetrees represent the shadow side of conformism, the cost of assimilation. By concealing their Jewish ancestry, they also repress their grief for who and what they have recently lost and the homeland in which these losses occurred. In this sense Harry and Shirl remain persecuted in their new country, and through their own repression are subject to another form of persecution: shame. Their children, Steve and Rosie are kept ignorant of their own ancestry, they are kiddies ‘who hated deviation’ which makes for a ‘family situation’ as ‘breakable as bakelite’. It’s no surprise though that Rosie Rosetree, so practiced at hunting out the undeclared visitations from her parent’s history, is ‘gunna be a nun. I’m gunna be a saint and have visions of roses and things’.

When White tells us that Shirl had ‘a kind of gift for assimilation’, we witness a woman still terrified of the fatal consequences of her Judaism. ‘Better than anyone she had learnt the language…’ White writes of Shirl’s English, his irony filtering through this migrant’s syntax. Even Steve and Rosie ‘had learnt to speak worse Australian than any of the Australian kids, they had learnt to crave for ice-cream and potato chips and could shoot tomato sauce out of the bottle even when the old black sauce was blocking the hole.’ The sauce represents other, less quotidian things that have congealed in the ‘family situation’. Shirl’s hyper-Australianness is a desperate performance, an identity the Rosetrees have no hope of truly embodying (and White suggests in this novel that identity is always performance, even for those who are born here). I find the Rosetrees the most outcast of all of Riders’ characters—even the displaced and suffering Alf Dubbo, consigned to a life of rootless roaming, is granted the fleeting consolation of art.

By choosing Australia, Himmelfarb refuses the freedom of ‘the golden city, Jerusalem’ and the kibbutz where his relatives seemed ‘completely fulfilled’ and belonged ‘like the stones, or the olive tree’, but were ‘dangerously arrogant’ in their Zionism. By choosing Australia, the ‘bitterest’, he rejects the idea of an ancestral homeland, where White writes, ‘they were all occupied with the business of living’. This brings to mind Primo Levi’s observation in The Drowned and the Saved (1986) that: ‘The business of living is the best defence against death, and not only in the camps.’ Himmelfarb tells his settler relative that ‘spiritual faith is also an active force’; it is this that will be his calling.

In Australia Himmelfarb accepts as his fate that he’ll be haunted by ‘the people he had failed: his wife Reha, the Lady from Czernowitz who he could not rescue from the gas chambers’. These ghosts are part of his grieving. Fully awake to his losses, he atones through an ascetic life, through prayer, and humility. Himmelfarb has no illusions of recovering from his history, but the cost of honouring his Jewish identity will be a second persecution. At Easter he’s strung up by Blue and the factory workers in a mock crucifixion from which he will not recover.

After Harry Rosetree hears of his employee’s death, he seals himself off in his ‘incredible car’ and goes out driving. As he passes the suburb’s Tudor homes he recalls his father’s prediction that he—Haim Rosenbaum—will be amongst the first to receive the lord. He attempts to atone by organising a Jewish burial for Himmelfarb, but Mrs Godbold has already arranged a Christian funeral. It is all the same, she tells him, regardless of a man’s faith, (she’s a mouthpiece for White here, and yet remains in character).

Later, at home, Harry cries out, ‘It is the same, it is the same,’ and Mrs Godbold’s phrase now invokes the violence and mob rule of the Holocaust as the past looms up in the unassuming suburb, darkening the ‘unconscious, foreign, Torrens-titled soil…’. Shirl suggests a consoling trip to the cinema, a ‘nice picture’ might help Harry forget Himmelfarb’s violent death. But after she leaves, Harry retreats into the bathroom full of glass and plastic, writes MORD on the mirror, rubs it out, then hangs himself.

Just as I’m unable to separate my attachment to Riders from how its setting evokes my childhoood, I can’t account for my development as a writer without acknowledging the impact of White’s dynamic, exhilarating style. I’m especially drawn to his ability to evoke complex undercurrents of unspoken emotion. This is partly achieved through his use of free indirect style, which allows us to access several levels of meaning and interiority; to encounter each character with varying degrees of psychic distance. In a scene where Himmelfarb seeks work from Harry Rosetree, White continually shifts the point of view so that we inhabit each of their consciousnesses at different moments. Here is Himmelfarb, first seen by Harry after he leaves the factory, then we enter Himmelfarb’s consciousness (‘swallows probably’) and his perceptions of the elemental, the sensory world.

The bloke Himmelfarb had gone out, and was walking alongside the green river, where nobody had been seen to walk. The river glistened for him. The birds few low, swallows probably, almost on the surface of the water, and he held out his hand to them. They did not come to him, of course, but he touched the glistening arcs of flight. It seemed as though the strings of flight were suspended from his fingers, and that he controlled the whirring birds.

This technique allows White to show us his characters in all their creaturely vulnerability, to inhabit their point of view and then imperceptibly shift so that we seem to encounter the world as experienced through the core of their being. Such an approach reinforces one of the novel’s interests—in how identity is assembled from many internal and external sources: in the scene above, Himmelfarb is at first an applicant, then in Rosetree’s words, a despised Jewish intellectual, a bloke, a foreigner. But then we experience Himmelfarb’s inner world, his survivor guilt, his wondering if he deserves the consolations of nature.

Riders may at times feel overdesigned and heavily symbolic, its scorn may seem to fall heavily on the unelect. But Sarsaparilla and Barranugli, Xanadu and Paradise East are meticulously realised and the novel’s technicolour vernacular is cut through with White’s astringent wit. White’s insight into the psychological effects of repression and persecution; the deforming forces of exile, conformity and assimilation now seem, like so much of his work, uncannily prescient.

Through the lonely figure of the Holocaust survivor Himmelfarb, and in the frantic conforming of Harry and Shirl, formerly Haim and Shulamith, I became aware of some familiar but previously unspoken tensions in my family and the broader refugee community: if you erase and repress a German-Jewish identity when faced with powerful imperatives to assimilate, how then do you fully mourn the dead? White’s heavy-handed authorial interventions mock the Rosetrees’ hysterical materialism and desperate conforming. But, perhaps because of my history in an outsider family—German and Jewish during the second world war—with little choice but to embrace Australia’s assimilationist ethos, the Rosetrees’ panicky renunciation of the past seems to me utterly poignant.

White’s exiles do not share a common homeland, nor do they wish to recreate the homes they’ve lost, which were, after all, never that homely. They seek instead a feeling of intimacy with the wider world. This comes about through transcendence into a realm beyond it, a space that is, as Veronica Brady points out, ‘a state of mind rather than of place’.

In her paper Brady evokes an image from Adorno—of someone searching at a piano for chord they have not yet heard, even though it exists since ‘everything that can be played is implicitly given in the keyboard’. It is the longing to discover this sound, she writes, that binds White’s visionaries, it is a desire to ‘discover the infinite in everything’, (William Blake’s phrase from the novel’s epigraph). As a child in Castle Hill, my searches were never so exulted, but I sensed a history that had shaped us into imperfect instruments, each housing our own wild tone.

This is an edited version of a talk first delivered as part of Sydney Ideas’ Reading Australian Literature series.

Notes:

Patrick White, Riders in the Chariot, Shenval Press, London, 1961.
David Marr, Patrick White, A Life, Random House, Sydney, 1995.
Veronica Brady, ‘God, History and Patrick White’, Antipodes, Vol 19, No. 2, 2005.
Klaus Neumann, “Thinking the Forbidden Concept”: Refugees as Immigrants and Exiles, Antipodes, Vol. 19, No. 1, 2005.
Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, Basic Books, 2002.