Writing the Nation
Patrick White and the Indigene
Cynthia vanden Driesen
Amsterdam & New York: Rodopi, 2009
Hardback. xxxvi+207 pages. ISBN 9789042025165. $US 75 / € 50
Reviewed by Anne Le Guellec-Minel
Université de Bretagne Occidentale (Brest)
In this study, Cynthia vanden Driesen “explores the significance of the Aboriginal presence” in three of Patrick White’s novels, Voss, Riders in the Chariot and A Fringe of Leaves, with the view of showing that “each of these texts interrogates European culture’s denigration of the non-European Other as embedded in the discourse of orientalism” [xiv].
While Said’s work provides the main theoretical reference of the study, in the Introduction vanden Driesen also acknowledges the importance of the work of Bill Ashcroft, Alan Lawson and Stephen Slemon, who highlight the need to think outside of the black/white binary when focusing on settler cultures. In accordance with their approach, she states that in the texts under study “there is evidence even of a project which can be articulated as a search for the possibility of white indigeneity, the potential for the white settler belonging within the land as does the indigene” [xxvi]. After a very brief overview of “literary responses” to the indigene since the beginning of settlement, vanden Driesen ends the Introduction by asserting that awareness of the centrality of the indigene to the concept of nation remains insufficient in Australia, although “it would appear that the work of creative writers is beginning to reflect a pattern of change” [xxxiv]. White’s own work not being particularly new, this judgement seems at odds with the rest of the study, which tends to present the three novels as the groundbreaking oeuvre of the “great artist” in the Jungian sense, who has the “capacity to answer the deep-seated psychic needs of his people” [xii]. The first chapter, “Recovery From Amnesia,” reviews, not in any chronological order it must be said, the events (the Mabo and Wik native title rulings) and the studies by historians (Reynolds in particular) and critics (Lawson again and Terry Goldie) that have impacted white Australians’ perceptions of their relationship with the indigene, and states that ensuing detailed discussion of the novels will be concerned with tracing the “affiliations,” in the Saidian sense, of White’s writing. However, these affiliations remain rather nebulous since White’s novels predate many of the texts mentioned.
Voss, Riders in the Chariot and A Fringe of Leaves are dealt with in succession in the next three chapters. Vanden Driesen’s stated aim is to trace a consistent, three-point pattern of reversal of colonialist strategies, namely: a restoration of the autonomy of the black world; a reversal of the hegemonic relationship between whites and blacks; and a transformation of white coloniser into indigene. The concluding chapter looks critically into what other critics have written about the three novels (mainly J.J. Healy in Literature and the Aborigine in Australia, Kay Schaffer in her articles on White’s rewriting of the Eliza Fraser story, Simon During in his monograph on Patrick White and Terry Goldie in Fear and Trembling) before providing some biographical details about White which are purported to explain the writer’s personal knowledge and appreciation of Aborigines and to confirm his involvement with Aboriginal issues. An Appendix provides the reader with a reprint of a 1984 article by vanden Driesen entitled “Jung, the Artist and Society, and Patrick White.”
While many of the close-readings of the individual texts prove rewarding, the fact that the novels are looked at one after the other, following the same analytical framework, puts into relief the critic’s marked proclivity for repetition, whether of arguments or quotations. Vanden Driesen’s approach, which purports to focus on the ideological “underpinnings” of “the White texts” (surely an unfortunate way of referring to White’s novels in a study which tends to confirm the black/white binary), completely irons out the ambivalence and ambiguities which are so characteristic of White’s writing, but also of Conrad’s, whose Heart of Darkness is presented throughout the study as a paradigm of imperialist contempt and ignorance.
The process of “asymptotic” (Ashcroft and Lawson) “indigenization” of the settler (Goldie), which we were told creative artists who are not restricted by imperatives of conceptual cohesiveness are particularly well placed to portray (Lawson’s “zeugma” is referred to on pages xxvii, 2 and 25), is never really explored or discussed in any depth in the study. In the Introduction, the author refers to her own life-experience of having been born and brought up in an “ex-colonized land” [xiii], thereby positing herself unambiguously on the side of the indigene. She is clearly motivated by a fine sensitiveness to derogatory perceptions of Aboriginality and often resorts to Fanon’s work to illustrate “the burden of blackness in the experience of the black man” . For these reasons, this book will no doubt appeal to students looking for positive representations of the Aborigine in white Australian fiction. Vanden Driesen’s main concern, which seems to be to convince the reader that White is no white supremacist, affords a refreshing take on a writer who, in the past, has occasionally been caricatured as a misanthropic reactionary.
Nevertheless, readers intrigued by the title, “Writing the Nation”, are likely to be disappointed by vanden Driesen’s summary treatment of the subject. Just as the black and white picture of White on the cover of the book fails to put across clearly the Australian Nobel Prize winner’s gesture in choosing to pose in front of the Aboriginal flag and the Eureka cross during the Bicentenary celebrations, the study fails to explore convincingly the issue of nation in a postcolonial context. It is very revealing, for instance, that White’s The Tree of Man should be excluded from the novels under study. Certainly there are no Aborigines present in the novel, but Stan Parker, the settler protagonist, undergoes a definite process of indigenisation to the extent that in the end he appears as the “native” who is supplanted by the encroaching suburbia. The novel itself is most definitely a cornerstone of White’s project of inventing postcolonial Australia. It is regrettable that vanden Driesen should have overlooked the advice Bill Ashcroft emailed her while she was writing her book and which, ironically, is included in the study: “I would be very careful about […] constructing indigeneity. You need to be very clear what you mean here. […] the striving for indigeneity is not the same as achieving it. […] You should stress the extent to which [White] takes risks and goes where angels fear to tread. Post-colonial doesn’t mean only aboriginal” [23-24].
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