Review of Reading Corporeality in Patrick White's Fiction: An Abject Dictatorship of the Flesh, by Bridget Grogan

The distinctive repetition of embodied characters and material environments in Patrick White’s prose has always busied Australian literature scholars. Bridget Grogan’s new work on the author’s obsession with corporeality delves deep into the discomforting realm of the body and its bleeding, burning and pulsing pressures. Indeed, Grogan invites us, as she argues White himself does, to ‘“kiss the corpse,” to accept the body’ and with it the dissolute qualities of human subjectivity White examines so closely in his narratives (16).

To kiss the corpse is to engage with Julia Kristeva’s work on abjection and its insistence on dissolution as inherent in the very making (or unmaking) of the modern subject. This feature is central to Grogan’s reading of the complex nature of corporeality in White’s work because, as Grogan very clearly states, ‘The abject incites a paradoxically horrifying desire because there is something compelling about loosening the shackles of the self’ (21). Grogan’s claim points to the core of White’s literary purpose: to alight upon the moment at which the subject is freed from the socially-inscribed self, a self that must otherwise maintain its façade at all costs.

One of the best examples of this moment can be found in a scene in Riders in the Chariot (1961) which sees Mrs Jolley, the nosy, brittle and vitriolic housekeeper, attempt to dance:

Then a terrible thing happened. Mrs Jolley began to dance, slowly at first, tentatively, sliding her practical work-shoes across the floor of the drawing-room at Xanadu. Her face was still only trying expressions, her arms and her body positions. But courage, or her daemon, prevailed. The muscles of her cheeks no longer twitched. Her mouth became fixed in the China smile of obsession, bluish-white. (108)

Mrs Jolley’s body is characterised as a hardened block, and her attempt to move in an extra-social way through dance is perceived as ‘terrible’. It is physically difficult because Mrs Jolley’s body has remained dormant and unlived in because of her continued adherence to the functions of the suburban culture she has performed. Her face, previously fixed to maintain social standards, twitches in its attempt to ‘try’ expressions. Her efforts fail, however, and her cheeks return to their ‘fixed’ position in the ‘smile of obsession’. White uses characters like Mrs Jolley – those distanced from their material being – to express the grave danger of allowing societal expectations to override individual experience and subjectivity. Mrs Jolley is not so much a singular subject as an embodied extension of the prohibitions of her culture, a state which by design must censure expression, corporeality, and, importantly for White, compassion.

White’s fiction highlights this censure and demonstrates the importance of individual and communal corporeality. At the moment when ‘the borders of subjectivity erode . . . sublime ecstasy results’, Grogan shows (35). This sublime ecstasy creates the space for the ‘oddly physical’ compassion which engenders White’s true vision of corporeality. To illustrate this claim, Grogan focuses on Riders in the Chariot and emphasises ‘the imagery of physical integration that foregrounds characters’ understanding of each other’ (37). She argues that ‘entry into another’s subjectivity is premised, for White, upon compassion, when characters feel in their own bodies the pain and suffering of an other’; it is the ‘catalyst of sympathy’ that seems to ‘destroy the envelopes of personality, leaving two essential beings free to merge and float’ (37). This freedom from the ‘envelope’ of socialised being does not discount the power of reason and mind but rather points to their conceptual, and therefore contingent, states of being:

White’s fiction . . . explores the irruption of nature, body, the unconscious, and affect into the vulnerable constructs of culture, mind, consciousness, and reason. It shows that the boundaries we erect to keep ourselves within our seemingly stable modern constructs are in fact fluid, slippery and insubstantial, and it does so within ‘poetic language’ that allows for the transgression of the symbolic and the promotion of the materiality of representation. (105–6)

The borders of the self, which Mrs Jolley endeavours to shore up, are ultimately fluid and unstable in White’s narratives. The self cannot be a unified and fixed form precisely because it is in constant negotiation with forces that are not external to it but instead move through it. White fixates on this idea in his work, and his continued elaboration of the manifold ways in which our material being engages with others amplifies his insistence on corporeality in understanding human individuality and subjectification.

White’s characters mirror twentieth-century subjectivity in its messy, unequivocal and unpalatable realness. This is also the power of the abject; to remind the reader of their own bodies, and eventual decay and death. To kiss the corpse takes on a new immediacy, however, in the context of White’s writing. This injunction is a call not only to recognise our own mortality but also to reinvigorate the present condition and its possibilities.

White’s use of visceral domestic spaces and imbued objects are overlaid with meaning and purpose, often in isolation from their customary descriptive qualities in works of fiction. For White, a house is never a home but functions more as a shaping force for subjectivity, just as a piece of jewellery or clothing becomes more than an adornment. Further, Grogan’s focus on what she terms ‘somatic spirituality’ offers a rigorous examination of the way in which White ‘intertwines two supposedly opposing concepts of an historically reified dualism, ultimately suggesting that “spirit” and “soma” inform each other to present mysticism as embedded in corporeality’ (182). What this intermingling means is that White refuses to allow reason and consciousness to be wholly human qualities.

An abiding argument across Grogan’s book is that because the human subject is so contingent and unstable, fractured and dissolving, reason can no longer be seriously thought to govern its existence. For Grogan, White’s narratives forward this idea ‘by drawing attention to the resistance of objects to meaning-making’, and in so doing deny ‘the objectifying aspect of the controlling consciousness’ (183). Grogan builds this claim in her earlier chapters; here she interrogates White’s use of binary identifications informed by abjection and performed in his novels. She then moves on to demonstrate that, ‘For White, material objects resist the foreclosure of interpretation, their specificity opposing the generalising properties of language’ (183). Objects do not exist outside the human in White’s work, as Grogan has gone to some lengths to prove. The human itself cannot be seen as individualised. Objects and environments instead merge with the human to delineate an expression of existence that, in its interconnection, may start to be thought of as unified.

The seven chapters of Grogan’s work are equally engaging and theoretically complex, offering an assemblage of close readings and distant estimations of White’s oeuvre. All of the major works are discussed and one of the book’s strengths is Grogan’s use of otherwise overlooked moments in the novels. For example, in her discussion of ‘Kristeva’s description of music as a form of signification more reliant on the semiotic than the symbolic, but dependent nonetheless . . . upon the latter’ (109), she calls upon a small scene early in The Twyborn Affair (1979), where Eudoxia and Angelos are playing a duet on the piano. According to Grogan, the ‘performance emphasises Angelos’s identification with the rule bound law and Eudoxia’s need for the fluid play of desire in music’ (109). This reading illustrates the way in which corporeality is not simply or exclusively about the body as a discreet and isolated structure but rather it exists within the binary problematic of ‘reason’ and ‘fluidity’.

Grogan’s use of small scenes throughout her book does, at times, preclude extended readings of them. Yet, her goal of offering new insights into both White’s prose and the recent post-humanist turn in the humanities is achieved. There is much in this book to interest both Australian literature scholars and those readers engaged in the methodological innovations shaping the broader literary studies field.

Published 19 December 2019 in Volume 34, No. 2.. Subjects: Patrick White, Corporeality.

Cite as: Kelaita, Jasmin. ‘Review of Reading Corporeality in Patrick White's Fiction: An Abject Dictatorship of the Flesh, by Bridget Grogan.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 34, no. 2, 2019.