Patrick White’s “The Vivisector”

One of the things I had been looking forward to after wrapping up my most recent book was to sink my teeth into a nice long work of fiction. Long-time readers will not be surprised to learn that it was a Patrick White novel that I decided to tick off my long to-read list. Next on that list was his 1970 work – The Vivisector.

I think I’m now about halfway through White’s bibliography and, at this point, I have no hesitation in declaring him my favourite writer of the 20th century. Admittedly, there are some big names from that time period that I haven’t read. I haven’t read Nabokov or Faulkner or Beckett, for example. For many of those names, however, I almost don’t need to read them since I’ve read enough of the literary modernists to know that I won’t like them. Literary modernism seems to me to be about breaking rules for its own sake. Sometimes, as in the case of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, the rules are broken only to be replaced by a gimmick that exactly matches the rule itself. How clever of Joyce to make the last sentence of the book lead back to the first sentence thereby capturing the cyclical nature of reality. Right? Except the Hero’s Journey is already cyclical and, what’s more, it incorporates the idea of transcendence too. What Joyce had really done was to remove transcendence from the story.

This was not an accident, of course, and the trend also occurred outside of literature. To take just one example, one of the main differences between the comparative historians Toynbee and Spengler is that the former allowed for transcendence while the latter argued for the kind of circularity implied by Joyce. In Spengler’s case, this was particularly weird since he had identified the striving towards infinity as the core feature of Faustian culture and yet his circular notion of history is almost a perfect contradiction of this.

What I like about Patrick White is that he does not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Because he follows the rules most of the time, when he does break them, he makes a point by doing so. That is an interesting feature of human culture that seems to also be a core property of “mind” in the broader sense of the term defined by Gregory Bateson. Rules set up expectations. It’s as if some energy is powering a network of cultural assumptions (collateral energy is one of Bateson’s criteria for “mind”). The failure to meet an expectation is amplified by the collateral energy and this creates meaning. Thus, meaning can be created as much by what you didn’t do as by what you did. But the ability to create such meaning only works if the system of rules is upheld. The whole problem with literary modernism is that it denies the entire system and therefore saws off the branch on which it is sitting. The result is turgid, long-winded and frankly boring; adjectives which are sadly all too true for much of 20th century literature. Thankfully, none of this is true of White’s novels.

Of course, it’s also true that White resonates with me for other reasons. What a synchronicity that I had just finished writing my own book which focuses, among other things, on the archetypal phases of the human lifecycle, and then it turns out that The Vivisector is a story that covers the entire lifespan of the hero: Hurtle Duffield. What’s more, White divides (vivisects!) the story into phases that map almost exactly to the archetypes that I have been using extensively for the past couple of years. The book proceeds in sections, each of which focuses on an archetypal phase of Hurtle’s life. We can summarise the sections as follows:-

 Hurtle Duffield’s Life
ChildBorn into a poor family
OrphanAdopted by a rich family and given an education
Early AdultStruggling artist
Mature AdultSuccessful artist
ElderMentoring a protege
DeathMeeting with God

I can now add The Vivisector to my list of literary works that ground my analysis of the archetypal Orphan, especially because White shows his protagonist as an Orphan earlier in the book and then as an Elder to an Orphan towards the end. More than that, Hurtle’s orphanhood is explicitly symbolised by a dramatic separation from his biological parents. Hurtle’s artistic and intellectual talents are recognised by a rich couple, the Courtneys, who literally buy him from his poor parents who already have too many children anyway and can certainly do with the money they are offered.

It is fitting that the Courtneys are an aristocratic couple since we might metaphorically say that each of us are “adopted” by our society through the auspices of education. Our biological parents must hand us over to the institutions of that society and there is an implied financial element to that since we are expected to take up an economic role in society. Thus, The Vivisector captures all the main archetypal themes that I sketched out in my most recent book and, just as White had done with his earlier novel, Voss, hardwires them into the structure of the story.

Another correspondence with my writing of the last few years is the presence of the Jungian anima character. I noted in my review of White’s Voss that the brilliant trick he played in that story was to make Laura Trevelyan the real hero and thus the book was really about Voss’ anima. In The Vivisector, there are not one but many anima characters. What’s more, these characters all map quite directly to the archetypal progression of the story. There is one anima character for each archetypal phase.

For those unfamiliar with the anima concept, Jung characterised the anima as the soul of a man (it was the male animus in women) with four archetypal phases that each man may potentially go through as follows:-

Anima SymbolMeaning
EveNourishment, love, desire
HelenExternal talents and accomplishments
MaryParagon of virtue
SophiaAbility to perceive negative as well as positive qualities. Wisdom.

Patrick White utilises these anima categories in The Vivisector as follows.

Hurtle Duffield’s LifeAnima FigureAnima Type
ChildMother (Mrs Duffield)Mother (Mary)
Orphan“Mother” (Mrs Courtney)Mother (Mary)
Early AdultNanceEve
Mature AdultHero PavloussiEve
ElderKathy VolkovHelen
DeathRhoda CourtneySophia

Unlike in Voss, which showed a much more direct correspondence of the anima progression in the person of Laura Trevelyan, The Vivisector is more complex as the above table shows. The book begins in the years prior to WW1 with Hurtle living at home with his biological parents. Hurtle is born into a very poor family. His father has no skills and no job. He makes a living collecting bottles in the street. His mother works as a washerwoman in the households of various aristocratic women, which is what brings the young boy to the attention of Mrs Courtney, who later buys (adopts) him.

We can see from this beginning a pattern which holds throughout the book which is that none of the characters represents an inherently positive version of the archetype. We begin with a mother who is prepared to sell her child for money. Not very Mary-like. Meanwhile, the surrogate mother, Mrs Courtney, is prepared to buy a child in order to keep up appearances. Hurtle’s first love is a prostitute. He has affairs with married women and there is even the implication that he sleeps with his protégé later in the book. White uses the archetypes as much in their shadow form as in their positive.

It’s also true that the drama of all this is highly abstract, and this is due to White’s aforementioned habit of breaking conventions and leaving things out. What he leaves out of the story are all of the major turning points in Hurtle Duffield’s life. This absence is all the more telling because the life of Hurtle reads like an over-the-top Dostoevskyan melodrama. We could summarise it as follows.

A precocious boy is born into an impoverished family. He has no prospects in life, but his genius is recognised by a wealthy aristocratic couple who adopt him into their house and provide him the best education money can buy including the development of his artistic talents. In his late teens, he rebels against his adoptive parents and runs off to join the army. He fights in WW1. After the war, he spends several years living in poverty in Europe as a Picasso-like avant-garde artiste. He becomes an artistic genius. He returns to Australia and has a tumultuous love affair with a prostitute while also becoming a successful and well-known painter. His fame brings fortune and access to the upper echelons of society including numerous dinner parties with various luminaries, affairs with exotic women, overseas holidays, worldwide notoriety, awards, meetings with the Prime Minister etc etc.

Any of these plotlines could be a dramatic novel in itself and yet White systematically refuses to detail any of them in his story. They are all referred to only in passing. We learn that Hurtle’s father has died through a letter received from his sister. The whole subject receives about three sentences and then we move on to the next part of the story. The same is true of the death of Hurtle’s first love, Nance. White spends pages and pages describing the intimate details of perfectly banal interactions where “nothing happens” and gives barely a few paragraphs to Nance’s death and the aftermath of it. Again, this is the inversion of the “rules” of storytelling. What in any other book would have been a dramatic turning point in the story is relegated to just another thing that happens almost as if it was no more important than a dreary meeting with one’s agent on a Wednesday afternoon.

Although White does not describe these dramatic events, he nevertheless demarcates the novel based on them. The death of Hurtle’s father, even though barely mentioned, comes at the end of the Orphan phase of life. After that, we fast-forward in time to find Hurtle as a young adult. Meanwhile, the death of Nance, his first love, also comes at the end of the section of the book where he is an impoverished artist. Shortly after, we jump forward into the mature phase of Hurtle’s adulthood where he is now a wealthy and famous artist. White builds the archetypal turning points into the structure of the book. He is not denying their importance, he is implying it. This is the same trick he used in Voss.

Because the archetypal turning points are not highlighted in The Vivisector, some might say it’s a book where “nothing happens”. Nevertheless, it’s the “nothing” which provides the inspiration for Hurtle’s art. Several times we see Hurtle rushing back home to turn the inspiration he has received from some fairly banal everyday interaction into a work of art. Hurtle is an artist who is concerned with everyday life rather than excessively dramatic events. (So, too, is Patrick White).

Here we come to the main theme of the novel. The Vivisector is a book about what it means to be an artist and White makes a connection with the practice of vivisection not just in the title but several times throughout the book.

Vivisection was a medical research technique that became quite widespread in the 19th century. The word comes from the Latin vivus meaning “alive” and so vivisection involved the cutting open of live animals. The anti-vivisection movement was led by the same women who were running the suffragette movement and they did much to put an end to the practice. Hurtle’s second mother in the book, Mrs Courtney is, in fact, an anti-vivisectionist and comes from the aristocratic class of women who led that movement. This aspect of the book is historically accurate. Practically all of the vivisectionists were men and practically all of the opponents of the practice were women, there is an implied gender asymmetry here which maps to Jung’s anima-animus distinction in an interesting way.

What White is saying is that being an artist is like being a vivisector in that it involves severing life into sections by turning it into works of art. Doesn’t one thereby kill the subject just as occurred in vivisection? That is the big question which White explores through the life of Hurtle Duffield. Viewed this way, the lack of attention in the novel to any of the major turning points in Hurtle’s life can be read as a commentary on what it means to be an artist. The artist is so self-absorbed that even the death of loved ones has little impact on him, just as the vivisector needed to be able to detach himself from the live animal he was dissecting. The artist (and possibly also a scientist and a philosopher too, since both of those involve vivisection) is necessarily removed from experiencing everyday life in its fullness. The events of life are either the inspiration for a work of art (or science) or they are nothing.

Whether this is a good or a bad thing is one of the main themes of the novel. On the one hand, we might argue that the artist is selfish, self-absorbed, introspective and not fully present even among those he cares most about. On the other hand, there is the thrill and satisfaction that comes from the creation of one’s own reality through art. This raises a deep metaphysical question: is there ever a reality that we can simply receive and be part of in a passive sense or are we always creating our own reality. If the latter, then the artist is the one who does not shy away from the responsibility. He takes creation seriously. Is that selfishness or is it courage, since the act of self-creation is necessarily isolating and leaves one vulnerable and exposed.

Patrick White knew a thing or two about the subject since he was an artist in the broadest sense of the term. The Vivisector is clearly autobiographical. Patrick White himself spent much time in Europe honing his artistic craft before returning to Australia and starting from scratch. He, too, fought in the war. He, too, took a trip to Greece with a Greek lover just as Hurtle does in the story. White would have have attended many an expensive dinner party thrown by the beautiful and wealthy people of the Sydney north shore. He also received many awards and accolades and even an invitation to meet the Prime Minister. All of these things happen to Hurtle in the story and so it’s quite clear that Hurtle is very much a self-portrait on White’s part.

It’s not a surprise, therefore, that, while White does not hide shy away from the dark sides of artistry, he ultimately comes down on the side of the artist. He does so in a way that ties in with the idea of the artist as prophet or religious practitioner. In the context of the book, this is the idea, possibly blasphemous in some denominations, that God is also a vivisector. What do we read at the beginning of the book of Genesis: God created the heavens and the Earth and all the things in the world. He partitioned the world into parts. To take on the role of artist is to be the microcosm to the macrocosm of God. It is to partition the world into parts in an act of creation.

White hints at this theme throughout the book and then makes it explicit by ending his story in a way that is identical to Goethe’s Faust. Like Faust, Hurtle Duffield goes on creating his reality until the very end. Like Faust, Hurtle reunites with his anima in death. But, unlike Goethe’s story, it is not the Virgin Mary who is there at the end but Hurtle’s hunchback sister, Rhoda.

The Vivisector can thus be read as a gentle satire on not just Faust but also Goethe’s other main work Wilhelm Meister and, indeed, on the romantic movement in general. White removes all the grand symbolic gestures that had become synonymous with romanticism. In doing so, he implies that true artistry involves finding the beauty in the everyday moments of life rather than in romantic escape into abstractions.

The romantic hero had died on the battlefields of the two wars. White knew that from first-hand experience. He also knew that romanticism had been used during the wars as a propaganda tool to bewitch the public. Whatever was left of the romantic movement in art had to be found elsewhere and White suggests we must find it again in the everyday reality in which we live.

In this way, there is a kind of mini-heroism in White’s refusal to throw the baby out with the bathwater as did the other modernists. He carries the torch for true art. It is a muted torch, but it may still the light way where there would otherwise be darkness or, even worse, literary modernism.

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