Riders in the Chariot: A Tale for Our Times

Patrick White's message of the need for loving-kindness in the face of difference, and fear of that difference, is as pertinent today in 'multicultural' Australia as it was when Riders in the Chariot was published in 1961. White's characters live in the emerging suburbs of a postwar, Menzies-led Australia still in the grip of the White Australa Policy. Mordecai Himmelfarb, the most obvious signifier of real difference in their midst, is known as the 'dirty Jew' and is, ultimately, destroyed for his failure to become an ordinary Aussie bloke. Critics have consistently found Himmelfarb's mock crucifixion less than convincing: it lacked adequate motivation; it was improbable, unreal; it bordered 'on the melodramatic'. At a time when a Brisbane Mosque is firebombed in retaliation for the September 11 attacks in America, when Muslim girls have their headscarves ripped off, when Anglo-Celtic gangs, dressed in T-shirts procliaming 'wog free zone', wrap themselves in Australian flags and chant 'Lebs go home' and 'ethnic cleansing unit', a little stringing up, all in good fun of course, does not seem to be beyond the realm of possibility. 


Of course this Australian fear and uncertainty of otherness is not new. Himmelfarb's persecution reflects the 'raging against the Jewish "refuse" of Central Europe' that White witnessed on his return to 'stiff-necked Australia' in 1948. What is new, however, is that the 'us' and 'them' mentality, initiated in this novel by the ignorant and inadequate suburban witches, is now being fuelled by highly educated and influential conservative politicians, journalists and public intellectuals. The politics of fear currently operating in this country fosters an environment in which people of minority ethnic and religious backgrounds are being metaphorically crucified for being 'un-Australian'. So too are those who speak out against such vilification; they are not only 'un-Australian', they are 'elites'. 

Worlds without and within: Reading through Patrick White’s library in The Solid Mandala.

‘And the attribute of all true art, the highest and the lowest, is this – that it says more than it says, and takes you away from itself’.

Olive Schreiner The Story of an African Farm (1883)

‘…world literature is not an infinite, ungraspable canon of works but rather a mode of circulation and of reading, a mode that is as applicable to individual works as to bodies of material, available for reading established classics and new discoveries alike’.

David Damrosch What is world literature?

One of the most powerfully disturbing scenes of reading in Australian fiction is to be found in Patrick White’s The Solid Mandala (1966), when the seemingly simple Arthur Brown, reading The Brothers Karamazov in Sydney’s Mitchell Library, is confronted by his twin brother Waldo and thrown out of the library in acute distress.  In its first iteration, this scene moves in and out of Waldo’s consciousness charting his embarrassment and disgust at his brother’s presence in his place of work. Waldo asks Arthur why he comes to the library to read rather than just stay at home. Arthur’s answer embraces two central concerns of White’s narrative.  Firstly, he reminds Waldo that he cannot read The Brothers Karamazov at home because their father was so afraid of the work he burnt his copy, having carried it to a bonfire with a pair of tongs. Secondly, Arthur celebrates the public nature of the reading room, a space where words and ideas may be shared among others.  Arthur explains to Waldo that he struggles continually to understand the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov so that he may ‘help people’ (200).  White sets Arthur’s altruistic view of literature and its operation in the world in sharp contrast to Waldo’s appropriation and use of literature for his private pleasure. 

Prior to this encounter we have seen Waldo in his first job at the Municipal Library masturbating amongst the ‘throbbing of books’ (122). On discovering Tennyson’s ‘Fatima’ he stands ‘shivering for the daring of words’ (122), yet in sensing their power he slams the book shut.  Knowing he ‘could have hurt any book shoving it back.  Occasionally he shoved one so far away from its recorded cell he hoped it would never be found again’ (121). Like his father Waldo appreciates, perhaps subconsciously, the power of literature to disturb, to excite and to threaten the status quo.  Through the brothers’ varied reading practices White offers his readers at least two options: to be open to the idea of literature being free in the world to circulate and make productive connections – to other people and to other texts – or to relegate literature, contained, captured and rendered unthreatening, to library shelves.  There are important resonances here with Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, chosen by White as an epigraph to his earlier novel Riders in the Chariot (1961). Of particular interest is the memorable fancy of the ‘Printing house in Hell’ where Blake suggests that powerful literature originates from ‘flaming fire, raging around & melting the metals into living fluids’.  In the fifth chamber these metals are ‘cast…into the expanse’.  For a time words are free to circulate in the world before being received by ‘Men who occupied the sixth chamber, and took the forms of books & were arranged in libraries’ (258). [1] 

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Blake celebrates the dynamic potential of contradiction and contrast to produce new meanings and perceptions.  Significantly, White structures The Solid Mandala around a handful of key scenes reflected from and refracted through contrasting perspectives.  So, for example, eighty pages after we first read, and believe we comprehend, the import of Arthur’s ejection from the library, we are presented with the scene take 2, this time through Arthur’s consciousness. Suddenly our readerly assumptions and certainties are radically, excitingly destabilized.  We begin to appreciate how deeply this novel wants to interrogate the act and practice of reading.

White wrote to Philip Martin that he was not interested in explaining his work: ‘Those who will understand my books will do so intuitively; I don’t want to waste time on the others’ (Marr, Letters 347).  White’s disdain for academics intent on overanalyzing his work is well known.  As Jennifer Moore discovered in transcribing his notebooks, he referred to researchers as ‘ferrets’. Yet Moore also found that White ‘was something of a ferret himself’.[2]  His scholarly research and reading for his novels was extensive and prolonged. So what further insights might we gather about The Solid Mandala if we move outwards from the text and trace some of White’s imaginative connections? Where else might we travel if we read through his library and engage with some of his scenes of reading? On the most obvious level, White’s chosen epigraphs and direct references to texts in the novel offer something of a road map to his influences and interests, but it is a partial map at best.  The commerce between the internal world of White’s novel and the external world of the literature with which it converses is rich indeed.