Spoiler Alert: I give away some of the plot details of Riders in the Chariot in this review. I do go into more detail than I would normally consider appropriate but this is almost all to do with the scene in the book which is already famous (and which I also knew about before reading the novel). Therefore, I don’t think this will spoil anybody’s enjoyment of the book, but those planning to read it should be aware.
It might seem strange to start a review of Riders in the Chariot with a discussion about the philosophical doctrine of Utilitarianism. There is nothing explicit about the subject in the novel. But what Riders in the Chariot is about is post-war Australia, the country I have previously called the most bourgeois on the planet. Utilitarianism is the morality of the bourgeois. It is the largely unspoken and therefore unchallenged dogma of materialism and if there was one thing Patrick White despised and hoped to change about Australia, it was our materialism and, by implication, our utilitarianism.
Many people could recite the most basic formula of Utilitarianism: the greatest good for the greatest number. Utilitarianism is a form of what is sometimes called consequentialism which just means that the ethical value of actions should be judged by their consequences. If you, purely by accident, blundered your way into creating the greatest good for the greatest number, your action is deemed of higher value than if, with the best of intentions, you failed to create anything good.
Now, of course, Utilitarianism is a big topic and there are numerous sub-variants which are attempts to answer the objections made to the doctrine. Probably the main objection has always been that Utilitarianism implies that killing an innocent is justified if it saves the lives of others. This is one of those classic arguments that always seems confined to university faculties at universities and can usually be counted on to draw the cynical response that it’s “just semantics” and “nobody would ever have to make that decision in real life.”
Well, during the last three years, exactly these kinds of decisions were made. To take just one of the more egregious examples, here in Australia two infants in South Australia needed to be flown interstate for life saving surgery but were denied because the borders were closed due to covid. They died. The justification given, not just by politicians but by everyday people on social media, was the utilitarian one: we couldn’t risk the lives of multiple other people who might get infected with a virus. The greatest good for the greatest number.
(This raises the other main objection to Utilitarianism which is that it must rely on speculative reasoning. We can only predict more people will die based on some model. But we can never know for sure because, despite what many people apparently believe, we are not God and we do not control the future).
The death of those children was a low point even for the corona hysteria and is, in my opinion, one of the lowest points in this nation’s history. Combined with the countless other episodes of people being denied urgent medical care, the elderly residents of nursing homes left without care for days because one of the staff tested positive and all the staff were placed in quarantine, the people unable to be at the side of loved ones who were on their death bed, the daily cases of police brutality, or any of the other innumerable indignities and absurdities, for the first time ever I found myself being ashamed to call myself an Australian.
Now that the insanity is over, there are people who want to apply the utilitarian framework to criticise the lockdowns on the basis that “they did more harm than good”. I suspect that’s true. But this is also just a model that is, ultimately, unprovable. And within that model, the deaths of two children are nothing more than a statistic; just a number in the “deaths that didn’t need to happen” column. When innocents have died, it seems self-evidently wrong to be bickering over whose model is more accurate.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Utilitarianism is what we can generically call Judeo-Christian ethics but particularly that espoused by the philosopher I mentioned a couple of posts ago, Soren Kierkegaard. For Kierkegaard, the consequences of an action are irrelevant. Every individual stands before God in sin. The judgement of an action is its accordance with the individual conscience; a person’s relationship to God.
It is this idea, usually presented in less extreme form, which grounds the Christian concept of the inherent dignity of the individual or, as it is stated in the US constitution, every person is endowed by their creator with inalienable rights and no earthly government gets to take them away.
Australians do not have rights enshrined in a constitution. The best we have is that we are a signatory to the UN charter of human rights; a charter which we violated in numerous ways over the last three years. Our former Prime Minister had the audacity to stand before the UN last year and remind the world that not only did Australia help write the human rights charter but we put our words into action.
Has Morrison ever read the charter? The second paragraph begins: “Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind…” A more concise summary of the last three years in Australia could scarcely be written. In the same week that Morrison spoke, police were firing rubber bullets on unarmed Australian citizens on the streets of Melbourne, just one of the countless barbarous acts committed during corona that should have, but apparently mostly have not, outraged our national conscience.
Why would the Prime Minister choose just this time to make reference to a charter his government contravened? Surely his speechwriter could find something else to talk about which was not so blatantly and obviously and shamefully hypocritical. In the normal course of politics, we would just assume Morrison was lying or obfuscating or gaslighting for some ulterior reasons. But a speech to the UN is purely symbolic.
So, I think the most likely answer is simply that Morrison and his speechwriter were oblivious. And they were oblivious in exactly the way that Patrick White shows in Riders in the Chariot. The problem lies in Australian culture. White intended his novel to be a wake-up call, or maybe a wake up club over the head with a cricket bat, to Australia and Australian culture. Clearly we haven’t got the message yet. So, what better time to reiterate that message than after the last 3 years of mindlessness and madness.
All the great authors and all the great artists of the modern western tradition are individualists in the sense that they are concerned with the individual and how the everyday life of a single person links symbolically to the life of the nation or even to the life of the entire world, universe or whatever you want to call it. I read Riders in the Chariot immediately after The Brothers Karamazov. Both books are concerned with the average person; in fact, the less-than-average person; the losers, the criminals, the shunned and the neglected.
I think it’s quite accurate to say that Dostoevsky is a masculine writer while White is a feminine one. This plays out in numerous ways. Dostoevsky’s heroes are men. White’s heroes are women. Dostoevsky’s main tools as a storyteller are dialogue and action. White’s main tools are introspection and metaphorical/symbolic perception. The crescendo in The Brothers Karamazov is driven by the dramatic events that preceded it. The crescendo in Riders in the Chariot is driven by the depth of our understanding of each character’s internal state based on the lives they have led i.e. empathy.
In comparison to the other of White’s works that I have reviewed, Voss, Riders in the Chariot is a much smoother read. In Voss, White continually overturns our understanding of what is going on. He forces us to re-evaluate everything at each major turning point in the story. This gives the plot of the novel a roughed-edged, jagged feel which is mirrored in the prose style which seems excessively verbose and florid. In Riders in the Chariot, the first three quarters of the book are devoted to presenting wonderfully intricate character studies. We learn in great detail about the biographies of four people who have all ended up, by the vicissitudes of fate, in the fictional nowhere town of Sarsaparilla located (I think) near Sydney.
First is Mary Hare. She is an old woman living in an old-fashioned country estate built by her dead father. The estate, called Xanadu (yes, it’s a stately pleasure dome), sits on the edge of Sarsaparilla; the post war suburban Australia encroaching ever so slowly on the pretensions of the old Victorian aristocracy.
Mary, although now an old woman, is mentally still a child. She talks to the trees and the animals. She can barely keep herself clothed and fed and lives on money sent from a relative in Europe. In archetypal terms, she is the Innocent or perhaps even the pre-Innocent. As she herself says, she “has no mind” but lives directly in experience. We see a parallel here with The Brothers Karamazov where Alyosha is the eternal Innocent.
The second rider in the chariot is Mordecai Himmelfarb, a Jewish refugee. White takes us back through Himmelfarb’s life as a German Jew. We see the tensions between his religious faith represented by his mother and the enticements of modern rationalism represented by his father. The latter wins out. Himmelfarb becomes a professor and finds himself in a comfortable bourgeois existence with the high status accorded to the role of scholar in pre-war Germany.
Himmelfarb serves in the first world war then returns to his comfortable life. But it doesn’t stay comfortable for very long. Despite the warning signs and even direct pleas from friends and colleagues, Himmelfarb remains in Germany as the Nazis take over and even as he is gradually stripped of his job, his wealth and eventually (almost) his life. Having lost his wife in the Kristallnacht, Himmelfarb ends up in a concentration camp in Poland but escapes the gas chamber at the last minute through blind luck (or is it divine intervention). He manages to flee to Palestine from where he decides to travel to Australia to live, still racked with guilt over his failure to save his wife and broken by the horrors of the holocaust.
Alf Dubbo is the third rider. A half-caste aboriginal born to a prostitute in a park on the edge of a country town, Dubbo is adopted by a pastor and his sister who give him a classical education, including Latin lessons. Dubbo is a natural artist but his talents are stifled by the pastor’s sister until the pastor himself intervenes to briefly allow Dubbo the chance to exercise his gift. Painting becomes the one certainty in Dubbo’s life as he floats around the country taking odd jobs, eventually winding up in Sarsaparilla working in the same sweatshop as Himmelfarb.
Finally, there is Mrs Godbold, who immigrated from Britain as a youth and became a servant in an aristocratic household. She ends up marrying a wife-beater, a situation she puts up with due to her deep Christian faith and her desire to redeem her husband. But he is beyond redemption and she ends up alone raising their numerous children in a tin shed on the outskirts of Sarsaparilla where she renders assistance to each of the other main characters, at different times nursing them through various illness and injury.
There is very little real-time plot action for the first three quarters of the book. With breathtaking virtuosity, White paints us intimate character portraits of each the four main characters; the riders of the chariot theme being a reference to the biblical passage were God approaches Ezekiel in a chariot.
What separates Patrick White from literary modernism and its grandchild, literary fiction, is this: his characters are real human beings and he makes us care about them. So much of modern literature and modern art, by contrast, is anti-human. To the extent that characters are even presented to us at all by modern writers, we get the distinct impression that the author hates or at least couldn’t care less about them. They are caricatures in the service of ideology. But all great art is about individuals and art is the opposite of ideology.
With such precision, delicacy and tenderness does White present the biographies of each of the four riders in the chariot that we almost forget that these people are what would, by the standards of bourgeois society, be called losers. We know their life histories, but to an objective observer in the post-war world of Sarsaparilla, Mary Hare is now a crazy old woman, the kind who wanders around in tattered clothing muttering incoherently. Himmelfarb is a late middle-aged recluse living in a ramshackle house. His very face is repulsive to those who accidentally catch sight of it. Dubbo is a sickly alcoholic who hangs around the local whorehouse getting drunk. Mrs Godbold is a single mother who lives in a tin shed while her young children run around screaming and getting into mischief.
If we lived in a big city, these are the kinds of people we would barely notice on our way from one appointment to the next. In a country town, where geography and demographics demand that we cannot avoid them, such people become outcasts and the subject of gossip and innuendo. The Brothers Karamazov takes place in a small town too. Both Dostoevsky and White knew that the big cities were for the worship of mammon. It’s the big cities where utilitarianism and materialism belong. Big cities facilitate forgetfulness. In a small town, there’s too much space and too much time. The objects of conscience have a nasty habit of crawling out of the shadows of consciousness and interrupting your holiday preparations or putting you off your dinner.
The main themes of Riders in the Chariot are almost identical to the other works of White that I’ve read. We have the male “hero” who represents European civilisation transplanted into Australia. He is either already dead, as in the case of Mary Hare’s father, or will die during the course of the novel as in Voss or Mr Roxburgh in Fringe of Leaves. The death symbolises, among other things, the death of reason and law seen in two world wars (and, I might add, in the last three years). But another way to look at that is the challenge to re-discover reason by re-integrating Necessity and Possibility as was the case with Alyosha dealing with Zosima’s death in Karamazov.
Until that is done, you are without a “father”. Without the father, the society of post-war Australia is the extension of the mindless materialism that was already there in the Victorian era. In Voss, we had Mr Bonner, the curtain retailer. In Riders in the Chariot, we have the local sweatshop factory, amusingly titled Brighta Bicycle Lamps, run by another Jewish immigrant but one who is desperately trying to forget the horrors he has escaped, Mr Rosetree (a clumsy attempt at assimilation because Rosetree, translated from the German Rosenbaum, is not a native surname in English).
Because of the similarity of the themes, almost all of the points I made about Voss in my post on that book are valid for Riders in the Chariot. But whereas Voss is cryptic, jagged and subtle, Riders in the Chariot is a giant hammer blow. The smoothness of writing in the first three quarters of the book seems purposely designed to prepare us for the scene that the book is famous for. White sets it up so intricately that, when it begins to unwind, the sense of sheer inevitability makes us sick in our stomach.
In order to understand the scene, there are two more characters to introduce and this is where the book took on added personal meaning for myself because the antagonists, the “bad guys”, to our four riders in the chariot are none other than two Devouring Mothers in the form of Mrs Flack and Mrs Jolley, both of whom also live in Sarsaparilla.
It’s probably only because once you notice something you start to see it everywhere, but I feel as though I’ve been bumping into Devouring Mothers everywhere in the last year or so; not so much in person, but through other people’s stories. It seems that every second person has a story about a Devouring Mother, whether it be their own mother or somebody they know.
If Devouring Mothers are so widespread, why do we almost never hear about them in the general culture? Part of the reason is because, at least prior to the age of the Karen, the Devouring Mother was restricted to the home and the home is private. Unless you get access to the home directly through kinship or friendship, you wouldn’t have any reason to find out whether or not a Devouring Mother is hiding there. And even if you did, you’d have to know what signs to look for. Thinking back, I realise a couple of good friends of mine from high school had Devouring Mothers. At the time, I knew something was weird but I couldn’t have explained it any further than that. And, even if I could, what am I gonna say? “Dude, I think your mum’s got narcissistic personality disorder.”
So, it’s symbolically and literally accurate that in Riders in the Chariot the two Devouring Mothers, Mrs Jolley and Mrs Flack, are almost never seen outside of the home. It is from the home of Mrs Flack that they devise and strategise and gossip and plot. It is the Jew, Himmelfarb, who has caught Mrs Flack’s attention in particular for she is a Church Lady and a racist (open racism was still common in the immediate post-war years in Australia as in many other countries). Mrs Flack has a young nephew, Blue, who works at Brighta Bicycle Lamps with Himmelfarb. He is her eyes and ears as she milks her unwitting informant via a weekly steak dinner. But Blue will become much more than an informant as the scene for which Riders in the Chariot is famous unfolds.
The understated precision with which White sets up that scene is a thing of beauty. I wonder how many people reading the book nowadays, including Australians who have been raised in big cities, would be able to see it coming. You probably have to have lived in small town Australia and you probably have to have worked in what would now be considered an old-fashioned blue collar job to have the requisite background understanding.
The blue collar factory jobs at the time were the domain of men. What sort of men? Mostly, men who had never matured beyond the schoolyard and were proud not to have done so. This was the era of the cultural cringe in Australia and its corresponding anti-intellectual ethic. To pretend to learning and knowledge of any kind was to draw the mockery of your workmates and that mockery could very easily turn to physical violence especially after a few beers at the pub after work.
And so the dramatic scene unfolds like one of those huge and intricate domino runs, as inevitable as any law of nature. Himmelfarb is a Jew and a German. In his earlier life, he was a distinguished professor. He does not socialise with the other workers in the factory. Therefore, he has no mates; nobody who will stick up for him when the time comes. He is The Other.
In a big city, he would simply be invisible. But not in a small town and especially not when the Devouring Mothers are at work. Mrs Flack has been priming her brainless nephew, Blue, with some nonsense about how the Jews killed Jesus (it is kind of true, giving her plausible deniability later on). “And there’s a Jew working in your factory, isn’t there?” You can just hear her saying it and you can just hear the gears of Blue’s mind turning as he realises the possibility to have a little fun (“blue” is Australian slang for “fight” as in “they’re having a blue”).
The dominos are all in place and it just needs a trigger. The trigger is that it’s the day before Good Friday. Things can get extra rowdy on such a day as people’s spirits rise in anticipation of a long weekend. But then Blue and several of his workmates win the lottery. Instead of working, they decide to spend some of their winnings at the local pub across the road from the factory. By mid-morning, they’re full as a goog (sorry, couldn’t help another bit of Australian slang. This one means “drunk as a skunk”) and Blue decides it’s time to have that bit of fun.
The bit of fun involves some improvised workplace bullying. Again, it’s the sort of thing that would happen all the time in that era. Himmelfarb is cornered. It’s the first time he and Blue have ever spoken. But Blue doesn’t really have anything say. He mumbles something about Jews and Jesus and that’s enough of a justification.
How does a mob decide what to do? Instinct. That’s what Mrs Flack has already told us earlier in the book. By definition, a mob must reduce the individuality of its members down to the lowest common denominator. The greatest good for the greatest number is the morality of the mob. If an innocent must be sacrificed along the way, so be it.
It’s the day before Good Friday. We’ve got a mob, we’ve got a Jew and we’ve got the concept of Jesus. How else could it go but a mock crucifixion? Himmelfarb is dragged outside to the nearest thing approximating a cross, a large tree, where he is strung up, thankfully not with nails.
It’s the part that comes next that is the real hammer blow. Everybody has stood around and watched the spectacle unfold with varying degrees of relish or uneasiness as suits their character. But nobody has lifted a finger to intervene. The artist, Dubbo, is the only one who is genuinely horrified but he cannot bring himself to do anything. Why is he horrified? Because, as an artist, he is the only one among the blue collar workers who takes symbolism seriously and who can see the horrific meaning before his eyes. As a human, he is also the only one at the factory who has interacted with Himmelfarb at a personal level.
When, finally, the factory foreman, who has allowed the boys to have their fun, comes out to put an end to the show, it’s with a smile and a laugh. Boys will be boys (note that it’s not men will be men. A man is whatever he is. A boy is whatever the other boys are). He helps Himmelfarb down from the tree with a couple of others and explains to the Jew that it’s all been a joke, just a bit of fun before the holidays. Himmelfarb’s lunch box is retrieved and he’s given the rest of the day off. Everybody else just goes back to work telling themselves that it really was a joke. And, anyway, no harm’s been done. Himmelfarb walks away by himself with a scratch or two, but nothing that won’t heal. From a Utilitarian point of view, there is no moral problem.
I mentioned in a past review that the story of Voss quite explicitly featured the Jungian concepts of the anima and the animus. One of the useful things about the anima/animus concept is that it gives us a way to talk about the masculine and the feminine and the gradations of development that exist. Himmelfarb equates to the second highest form of the masculine animus. He is the professor; the sage. But only in shadow form because he is a broken man. He makes no effort to impart his knowledge but takes up a job in a factory where he gets reduced down to the level of Blue who is the lowest form of the masculine, little more than a body, and just a puppet for his Devouring Mother aunt who need only whisper in his ear and he dances on her strings.
Like Voss, Riders in the Chariot is primarily about the feminine. In Voss, White had shown us the feminine in the highest form of Sophia, Laura Trevelyan. But Laura Trevelyan is absent from the town of Sarsaparilla. Sophia is wisdom. It is about the understanding of symbols. More importantly, Sophia is about understanding people as individuals. Mock crucifying a Jew on Passover, on the day before Good Friday, is symbolically about as horrific as it gets in a nominally Christian country. Mock crucifying a man who has just escaped the holocaust take it to a whole different level. Like I said, White clearly intended this as a hammer blow rather than the subtle intricacy of Voss.
The key point is that none of the people involved know any of this. They are oblivious, mindless. They might call themselves Christians, but they have never been taught how to interpret Christian symbolism. And they know nothing about Himmelfarb as a person either. He is “just that Jew”, nothing more. For them it really is just a joke and Jesus’ words “forgive them, father, for they know not what they do” are directly applicable. In order for it to be something more than a joke, they would need to have activated their conscience. Some have and it gives them an uneasy feeling that they can’t define. Most haven’t. They simply don’t know. The two who do know are Mary Hare and Mrs Godbold. They will tend to Himmelfarb as the modern Mary Magdalene and Salome.
Riders in the Chariot is about what happens in a culture when Sophia is missing. Nothing matters. Nothing means anything. Everything becomes a joke. Anything is allowed to happen and is then judged by its materialist consequences rather than its symbolic/psychological/spiritual meaning. Winning the lottery is just as worthwhile as getting rich through hard work and endeavour because the result is the same. Therefore, the moral worth is the same.
In Jungian terms, when the positive form of the archetype is absent, the shadow form takes its place. Sophia is absent in Sarsaparilla. The Devouring Mother is not. Mrs Flack and Mrs Jolley are there to fill the void. After the incident with Himmelfarb, they finally show their faces in the street to see the results of their handiwork. White has Mary Hare, the Innocent, who had befriended Himmelfarb earlier in the book, run up to them and scream in their faces “you are the devils!”
Given the subtlety of the novel leading up to that moment, this scene felt to me unnecessarily explicit. But, actually, the whole remainder of the book is spent with White spelling out the meanings of the text in far more overt terms than than he did in Voss. I would have preferred him not to do so. But I think by the time he wrote Riders in the Chariot, White was already frustrated that his earlier novels had not been understood. So, he spells it out as clearly as he can. Riders in the Chariot can be seen as his literary version of a bomb and he wanted the explosion to be as big as possible. He wanted to scream at Australia “this is what you are!”
He was right. And we still are.
There is a lot less racism now in Australia. Workplace bullying has been all but gotten rid of. But, archetypally, very little has changed. The higher forms of the masculine are absent and we still completely lack Sophia. For that reason, if he were alive, I don’t think White would have found anything surprising in what happened the last three years. The Devouring Mothers still run Australia; Mrs Flack and Mrs Jolley. And they will continue to do so until we reconnect with Sophia and rediscover wisdom and true meaning.