‘The Kingdom of Dust’: Voss as Planetary Epic


Embracing the environmental, eco-materialist and planetary turn in the humanities, prompted by the Anthropocene, this paper offers a reading of Voss as an environmental and planetary epic. The unique environmental qualities of Patrick White’s writing, and his later-life activism, have perhaps suffered due to a focus on the psychological and spiritual aspects of his biography. Reading Voss as a journey ‘into the dust’ (213), away from colonial Sydney, and associated Eurocentric forms, this paper argues that the very material and elemental nature of the Australian environment emerges as an agentive and subversive presence, suggested by the insidiously small, yet itinerant dust. White’s journey inland, into the ‘kingdom of dust’ (297), shatters, fragments, and erodes the stable, the terran and the fixed, but through that very reduction, the story becomes engrained in elemental and planetary forces. The disruptive aesthetics, connected to the drying of the material environment and the desert, immerses the reader in an errant environment in motion. This paper argues that the epic qualities of the story are imparted through this very contact with the environment, the elemental and the planetary, positioning Voss as a planetary epic.

Vast is the kingdom of dust! Unlike terrestrial kingdoms, it knows no limits. No ocean marks its boundaries. No mountains hem it in. No parallels of latitude and longitude define its boundless areas (Ogden 9).1

Patrick White’s Voss departs from Sydney, with the expedition journeying into the country and the dust-carrying westerlies which emanate from the heart of the continent. The Kati Thandi-Lake Eyre Basin forms the centre of this dust-producing interior, with dust pathways radiating outward (see Strong et al). In some regions, these pathways move far more sediment than water. They are like deep time rivers carrying fragments of worlds and underworlds past, around which the present and future gather. Permanence is wrapped within impermanence, transient and yet enduring. It has been estimated in excess of one billion Indigenous people have lived and died on this land (B. Griffiths 1); the dust is, as Judith Wright has written…

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Published 11 December 2022 in Volume 37 No.3. Subjects: Australian fiction, Environmental issues, Natural environment - Literary portrayal, Patrick White.

Cite as: Cox, Samuel J.. ‘‘The Kingdom of Dust’: Voss as Planetary Epic.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 37, no. 3, 2022, doi: 10.20314/als.40f6a48016.