The Ethics of Abjection: Patrick White’s ‘Riders in the Chariot’

Michael Wilding has recently discussed Patrick White's modernism in terms of White's disdain for what he famously called the 'exaltation of the "average"' in Australian society (Patrick White Speaks 15). As Wilding shows it is not difficult to see how this modernism masks an elitism that accounts for White's at times paranoid fear of suburbia. Riders in the Chariot (1961) is the novel that clinches this reading of White as the patrician modernist unable to represent middle Australia except through a series of extravagantly misanthropic caricatures (Wilding 29-30). In this essay I want to use Riders in the Chariot to suggest another way of reading the politics of White's modernism. The world of Sarsaparilla in the novel need not be read as an attempt to represent, in straightforward referential terms, the truth of suburbia, but, on the contrary, should be seen as part of a textual topography used to communicate a particular kind of ethicality. This topography predicates a notion of normality and the forms of alterity that are constituted as abject with regard to it, that is, as cast out beyond the limits of acceptable sociability. The novel attempts to reorganise this topography, or the way in which the reader identifies with it, so that the normal becomes pejorative, while identification with the abject takes on a deeply ethical resonance. White's obsession with abjection has usually been read in terms of his transcendentalism, another term that consolidates the image of the conservative modernist, and Riders in the Chariot's well documented appropriation of Judaeo-Christian mysticism certainly encourages this view. But the notion of transcendentalism, or what Simon During has recently specified as 'latecolonial transcendentalism', has led to some misunderstanding regarding the ethical radicality that motivates White's recovery of the abject in Riders in the Chariot, and, in differing degrees, in virtually all his major work subsequent to it. This essay concentrates on Riders in the Chariot, but also attempts to establish an interpretive frame in which White's abjection more generally might be read beyond the stigma that terms like modernism and transcendentalism have come to suggest.

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Published 1 October 1997 in Volume 18 No. 2. Subjects: Alienation, Australian literary criticism, Compassion, Honesty, Modernism, Place & identity, Transcendentalism.

Cite as: McCann, Andrew. ‘The Ethics of Abjection: Patrick White’s ‘Riders in the Chariot’.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, 1997. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.f8f294e84a.