Spoiler Alert: I give away some details of the plot of Voss in this post. I don’t believe this will impact anybody’s enjoyment of the book as the literal aspects of the plot are not central to the meaning of the work, but people planning to read the book should be aware.
This year I’ve been making a conscious effort to read more fiction and have finally gotten around to checking out some Australian works that have been on my to-read list for ages. I started off with the book that is widely regarded to be the first Australian classic, Joseph Furphy’s “Such is Life”, written in 1897 and set in the Riverina district of NSW. Its claim as the first classic is definitely warranted. It’s a charming book full of memorable characters and scenes including a comedic yarn that P G Wodehouse would have been proud to author. I can definitely recommend it to anybody wanting a glimpse of what life was like in the squattocracy days of 19th century Australia.
Having ticked Furphy off the list, I decided to turn to meatier fare and try my hand at the author widely regarded as Australia’s greatest: Patrick White.
Back when I was at uni, I did a semester of literature. White was not on the syllabus but I did get to sample the, errr, joys of some of the modern Australian fiction which White is supposed to have influenced. I was not impressed. Modern literary fiction, not just in Australia, is characterised by endlessly flowery quasi-poetic prose made unfathomable by a complete absence of plot and character. I had assumed White was a member of that category and it is for that reason that I hadn’t gotten around to reading him til now. These days, I approach anything called modern literature the way I’d approach an Eastern Brown Snake. Which is to say, I don’t. I back away slowly, then turn and run.
Now that I’ve read White, I can certainly see why he might get lumped in with the dreaded genre of modern literature. His prose is often overwrought. But I suspect that the writers he inspired were just mimicking him. They knew his writing was great but didn’t know why and, in the absence of that understanding, tried to achieve greatness themselves by copying the form but not the content. It’s the same error made by people who noticed that most of the great Irish writers were alcoholics and concluded that the thing to do to become a great writer was to drink a bottle of whisky for breakfast every day. As Jimi Hendrix once said, I’ve been plagiarised so much, I’ve even heard people copy my mistakes. What would be flaws in a lesser artist become charming quirks in an artist of greatness. Even technical errors look like they were done on purpose.
Given this background, I approached White with caution. I decided to dip my toe in with one of his lesser (and shorter) works and began reading Fringe of Leaves, which is based on the true story of Eliza Fraser whose boat got shipwrecked in 1836 on the island that now bears her name, Fraser Island, near Brisbane in Queensland. Here I discovered the other of White’s main flaws as a writer which is his habit of telling instead of showing. Rather than have his characters reveal themselves to us through their words and actions, White frequently gives us his interpretation of them. That would be bad enough but he delivers his interpretation in a cryptic, quasi-psychological fashion that, much like his unnecessarily convoluted sentence structures, makes the reader do the work. And far too often the payoff is not worth the effort invested. The good news, I quickly realised, was that the reader can simply skim over these sections without missing anything of importance.
Having thus attuned myself to White’s style, I decided to tackle one of his major works, the book that won the inaugural Miles Franklin Award, Voss. Like Fringe of Leaves, Voss is based on a true story from Australian history; this time, the disappearance of German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt who attempted to cross the continent from the Darling Downs in Queensland to the Swan River in Western Australia in 1848. After beginning the journey, Leichhardt and his party were never seen again, at least not by white folks. Despite several expeditions to find the remains, to this day there is no hard evidence about where they died but only various theories based on the recovery of different artefacts and marks left on trees.
The real life Leichhardt was a man of science and won several awards for his work. But science, at least as we would think of it nowadays, plays no role in the story of Voss. What Voss is, is a work of Faustian culture, in my opinion one of the greatest works of modern Faustian culture incorporating the ideas of two of the greatest exponents of that culture in recent times: Nietzsche and Jung. Being set in Australia, Voss is also a critique of Australian culture from within the Faustian paradigm. The protagonist is a German who is going to “discover Australia”. He is supported in his task by the Anglo-materialist bourgeois culture of Sydney in the mid-19th century with its Victorian era moral pretences and staid social rituals.
White himself was appalled by the modern version of that bourgeois society which still dominated 100 years later when he returned to Australia from continental Europe in the 1950s. Thus, Voss can be seen as White’s attempt to show Australians where the problem lies and also the solution; namely, to balance out the yin of Anglo materialism with the yang of what I would call the spiritual Faustian exemplified by the continental tradition. If Voss as a work is completely unconcerned with the everyday life of its characters, it is because White wants to counter a lack of spirituality in modern culture with an extra hard dose of it in literary form.
The result is that there is no drama in Voss. We never learn why the characters are doing what they are doing or even why they think they are doing what they doing. This is true even of the titular character. Why does Voss want to go on this journey? What does he hope to achieve? Why was he selected by whoever did the selecting? What do they want out it? None of this is ever dealt with. Even at the start of the book where we are introduced to the characters, there is little about the details. White gives us small glimpses into everyday life by having secondary characters give their impression of Voss and Laura, the two protagonists. But these are just to show that the other characters do not understand precisely because they are lacking the spiritual Faustian.
This approach gives the book an inevitable pretentiousness. The two central characters, Voss and Laura Trevelyan are given some lines that could be straight out of Nietzsche. We hear, for example, about the will and fate and rising above baseness. It reminds me of the comedy sketch “Shit Nietzsche Says”, which admittedly is not that funny, but does capture the awkwardness of what happens when you speak philosophical ideas in an everyday setting where they do not belong. Voss and Laura are a bit like that in the book. This would be a problem if it wasn’t clear that White was doing it on purpose. Such ideas are not made to be comfortable. They are made to shake people out of the drowsiness caused by excessive comfort. In White, they become a direct challenge to Anglo Australia and its materialist mediocrity.
Because of the lack of drama in the story and because we know the plot in advance, the novel has an epic tone that is firmly within the romantic tradition. We know from the start that Voss is doomed. He is the loner, misunderstood by society, destined to die like we all are but willing to face that death honestly unlike the bourgeois society with its big houses, its garden parties and its fancy clothes all of which seem like an elaborate scheme to hide the truth away so it doesn’t spoil one’s appetite before dinner.
It’s that bourgeois world that we enter at the start of the book as Voss visits his main financial sponsor, Mr Bonner, at Bonner’s estate to take care of some business about his expedition to Western Australia. It’s Sunday morning and everybody is at church except Laura Trevelyan, Bonner’s niece (coincidentally, Voss is not at church either). White gives us the prototypical beginning to a love story which could be straight out of Jane Austen. An odd couple meeting in an aristocratic house. She the niece of good, morally upstanding citizens. He an outsider not well versed in the manners of polite society. Later, there is a scene at a small dinner party where Laura goes into the garden for some air. Is she going outside in the hope that Voss will follow her and they can be alone? Does he take the hint and join her in the garden? That would be what happens in a typical love story but, as already noted, in Voss everyday emotions and desires play no role especially for the two protagonists.
So lacking in the normal dynamic of a romantic love affair are these initial encounters that it comes as a shock when Voss, just before starting his journey from the Darling Downs, sends a letter to Laura telling her he plans to ask her uncle for her hand in marriage. She is just as surprised as we are because, not only has there been no hint of romantic love prior to that, there is no indication that Voss would or could settle down and become a proper husband assuming that he even makes it back from his treacherous journey. Laura writes back neither confirming nor denying her acceptance of Voss’s proposal. It’s the last communication between them in the book and it marks the beginning of act two of the story and the signal that we are entering the psychological and spiritual world that characterises the main body of the novel. Voss goes wandering in the desert in true biblical fashion. Laura is going to become the Virgin Mary. The love story was just a ruse. We are now in a symbolic realm whose correspondence with Jungian psychology is so precise that I cannot believe it is accidental.
Many people have heard of the anima and animus. These are the archetypes that represent the opposite sex in our minds. They initially belong to the unconscious part of the mind and a big part of our growth as individuals is the extent to which we can integrate them into our psyche and bring them to consciousness. The anima is the unconscious part of a man’s psyche that represents the feminine qualities and the animus is the unconscious part of a woman’s psyche that represents the masculine. The integration of the anima or animus determines, among other things, what we can perceive in members of the opposite sex. We’ve all heard the criticism that men objectify women and this is a true fact of male psychology which is only overcome by the man integrating his anima. Conversely, a woman who has not fully integrated her animus sees in men little more than a physical presence, hence the truism that women love a man in uniform (White represents this in the novel by the character of Belle Bonner, who marries a Lieutenant).
The integration of anima and animus begins in earnest with the development of sexuality at puberty and is therefore integral to sexual and romantic love. But it also drives the higher integration of the psyche in those who are ready. This is why Jung referred to the integration of the shadow as the apprenticework while the integration of the anima/animus was the masterwork. It’s also why great religious symbolism contains both the masculine and the feminine; Christ and Mary, for example.
The relationship between Voss and Laura quite literally takes place outside the physical plane as they are not co-located for most of the book nor in contact. Rather, they exist in each other’s minds. What is being represented is nothing more or less than the Jungian individuation process in action. Laura is Voss’s anima. And Voss is Laura’s animus. The story does not show us any romantic love between Voss and Laura because they have already skipped what we might call the first stage of the Jungian journey. That’s how we find them at the start of the book. Voss is the of man action ready to undertake a great mission. Laura is insightful and intelligent but not virtuous. She tells us so herself. They both need each other to begin the process of ascending to the higher plane. They are each other’s instigator for the male and female individuation process.
This takes place in the second act of the story. Voss transcends the man of action to become a spiritual guide for both Laura and the men he is leading in the desert. He rides ahead of them on his horse, aloof and abstract. He barely interacts with them but he shows them the way. Meanwhile, Laura attains virtue. She transitions into the Virgin Mary symbolised by her adoption of an orphan girl who she names Mercy. By the end of the second act, Voss has ascended to the highest plane. He is a messenger of meaning sent from the Gods, a prophet, symbolised by White in the presence of a comet in the night sky. His death leads to Laura’s final transcendence. She becomes Sophia, wisdom, and can finally see Voss for what he really is whereas earlier she had wondered “are you just a myth?” Before he dies, Voss also see Laura for all that she is, no longer a mere object.
These Jungian themes are reinforced in the third act where Voss is equated with Christ: the fully integrated Self capable of good and evil and inevitably having manifested both as a result of being human. This is contrasted with the bourgeois society which cannot accept evil and must pretend that everything is for the best. Laura is still a part of that society but she has left the house of her aunt and uncle. The question of Voss is in the air but as little more than gossip. “What happened to that German?” Laura is the only one who really understands the meaning of his journey. In biblical terms, she is Mary Magdalene; the true witness to the death of Voss in the way the biblical character was to Christ.
If the relationship between Laura and Voss is symbolic of Jungian integration at the personal level, White brilliantly extrapolates this further in a way that is consonant with both Jung and occult theory. As above, so below. If individuals can individuate, so can societies. The relationship between Voss and Laura becomes a synecdoche for Australian society and culture. Laura is the Anglo inheritance, brought to the country in trying circumstances to find a colony mired in materialism. Voss is a German representing what I earlier called the spiritual Faustian. Crucially, Laura is not the daughter of Anglo materialism (that role goes to Belle Bonner) but its dissatisfied niece. She represents the Australia that is looking for something more. That something more is the spiritual Faustian represented in the Germanic tradition – Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Jung – and embodied by Voss.
The question of Australia is raised at the start of the book where Voss mentions that, though a foreigner, he hopes to find the “real Australia”. It is to this question that White returns in the third act of the book. Voss is dead. He has played his symbolic role of bringing Faustian spirituality to Australia, but he is just the messenger of the gods. It is up to Laura, now in her psychological and symbolic role as Sophia (Wisdom) and representing Australian culture, to interpret and transmit the meaning of Voss. Fittingly, she is now a school teacher. She will teach the next generation, including her adopted native born daughter, the meaning of Voss; which is to say, the meaning of Faustian culture.
In the final scene, Laura morphs into an 18th century French salonnières, holding court with her artists, thinkers and geniuses. An Englishman makes a wisecrack at the expense of Australian culture to which she responds. “We…will humbly attempt to rise in your opinion if you will stay long enough.” How long is enough, asks the man. For those strive for perfection, an eternity, answers Laura.
“The eternal feminine draws us on high,” wrote Goethe at the end of Faust. White finishes his book on the same note.
And that’s what Voss is, of course. It’s the Australian Faust. Note that the word “Voss” is phonetically almost identical to the word “Faust” (White pulls a similar trick in the book by giving the Judas character the name “Judd”). What Voss is, is a classically Faustian story updated to incorporate the ideas of Nietzsche and Jung and translated into the Australian landscape. It is neither more nor less than the attempt to uplift Australian culture from its mindless materialism. If this task sounds absurdly, even arrogantly, grand, White actually pulls it off. Voss is a masterpiece of Faustian literature, not just Australian literature.
I’ll finish with a few brief points.
Because Voss is set in Australia and was written at a time when Australian cultural identity was still trying to break free of the “cultural cringe”, it has inevitably been bound up with questions of Australian culture. It’s clear that White meant it as a clarion call to Australians. But the problem it addresses, the languishing in mindless materialism, has become pervasive across all Faustian culture (the West) in the aftermath of WW2. The Anglosphere “won” the wars and Anglo materialism has come to dominate everywhere. But the loss of the Germans was more than just a military one. The resources of the spiritual Faustian were put to work in service of the Nazis, most famously in their absurd invocation of Nietzsche who had himself predicted and warned about the looming threat of the bloodthirsty nationalism that was taking hold in Germany. Jung, Spengler and Heidegger also got dragged into the maelstrom. The Nazis ensured that the spiritual Faustian became tarnished by association with a great horror; an association it has retained to this day.
The obsession of the Anglosphere with the Nazis has many elements, but I suspect one of the main ones is this: the spiritual Faustian was the yin to the yang of Anglo materialism. Without the spiritual element, Faustian culture has been out of balance; malfunctioning. That was true in Australia in 1848 when Leichhardt started his voyage. It was true in 1957 when Voss was published. It’s even more true today.
We are missing our yin, our Faust, our Voss, not just in Australia but everywhere in the western world. White doesn’t seem to have appreciated that fact but perhaps he was blinded by the fact that Australia simply was more mindless than Europe at that time. Bertolt Brecht had a similar response when he moved to California. But rather than Australia and America rise to the spiritual Faustian, what has happened in the post war years is that the home of the Faustian, Europe, has descended to the material. That is what the “victory” of the Anglosphere has brought. Voss should have been a wake-up call to all Faustian culture in general, but by being written in Australia, it has become merely a work of Australian literature.
Of course, the book is not understood in Australia anyway. I’ve read numerous reviews of it now, including by people who are paid to be serious commentators of Australian literature. There is nothing, not a single review, not a single sentence of a single review, which indicates that anybody has any idea what White achieved with Voss. I’ve seen it referred to as a “romance” or, even worse, a “psychological thriller”. I guess this makes sense. You have to know the Bible, Goethe, Nietzsche and Jung as a bare minimum to understand the references in Voss. Maybe you have to have actually lived, like Patrick White did, in the Faustian heartland and absorbed its symbols. It’s precisely because the spiritual Faustian is lacking its basic elements that nobody could see what Voss really was.
Because of this, Voss takes on a meta meaning. It is autobiographical. Like its main character, the book is prophetic. But Voss needs his Laura Trevelyan to understand and interpret him and that is what is completely missing here in Australia. People know Voss is a work of greatness but they don’t know why. Spengler had already identified this problem. Australian culture is a Faustian pseudomorphosis. White intuited that. Voss is his attempt to create a true Faustian culture but nobody understood. And people wonder why White was notoriously grumpy!
And so one of the great works of Faustian culture was written in Sydney, Australia and nobody knew. To this day, I doubt anybody knows because Voss is treated like mere literature; even worse, Australian literature.
This is the final point I will make: you can’t understand Voss if you treat it as just literature.
This follows from an idea that emerged within Faustian culture, I think around the time of Nietzsche. If God is dead and religion moribund, who will interpret and propagate the symbols of the culture? The answer was: the artists. It was art which would fill the vacuum. Art would become the forum and the medium of interpreting and disseminating the symbols which constituted the culture. Art would be what would keep the symbols vibrant and alive and lift the culture out of mindless materialism.
It’s this role and this vision of art which White aims for and attains with Voss. To treat Voss as mere literature, let alone Australian literature, is to miss the point entirely, especially since literature itself has degraded to the point where it is now nothing more than a hobby of the upper middle class; exactly the thing that White was railing against.
It would be more accurate to treat Voss as a spiritual text. It is, to use another Nietzschean phrase, a re-evaluation of all values. It takes the symbols of Faustian culture and updates them for the modern world. It sets a challenge, not just for Australia, but all Faustian culture. It’s the kind of book that could make you believe in Faustian culture once more and yet, as I have already alluded to, it fell on deaf ears.
Maybe that’s the way it has to be. I’m sure White had read Nietzsche and Jung, but I’m guessing he hadn’t read Spengler. Voss looks set to become one of those late works of genius that comes during the civilisational phase, before the barbarians are at the gates, but when there is nobody left inside the gates who can understand.
That is what is at stake when talk about “culture”. Without Laura Trevelyan in her highest manifestation as understanding, Voss is reduced to a mere historical fact. He is Ludwig Leichhardt, the German explorer who went into the desert and never came back. It is only in the minds of a people and a culture that knows how to interpret symbols that he becomes all he can be. He becomes the son of God. He becomes Voss.
All posts in this series:
Patrick White’s “Voss”
The Eternal Feminine, The Devouring Mother and the Fourth Face of God: Part 1
The Eternal Feminine, The Devouring Mother and the Fourth Face of God: Part 2
The Eternal Feminine, The Devouring Mother and the Fourth Face of God: Part 3
The Eternal Feminine, The Devouring Mother and the Fourth Face of God: Part 4
The Eternal Feminine, The Devouring Mother and the Fourth Face of God: Final