Cannibalising the Artist: The Monster in Patrick White’s The Vivisector

In response to his biography, Australian novelist Patrick White said, ‘I think this book should be called The Monster of All Time. But I am a monster…’ He was notoriously unreserved in his exploration of humanity’s inner demons, most notably in his epic and uncompromising novel, The Vivisector. Chronicling the life of egotistic painter, Hurtle Duffield, it explores the link between artist and God, artist and reality, artist and subject, and won the Nobel Prize in 1973. Forty years on, Matt Young looks into the life of this iconic writer and examines his award winning work, The Vivisector.

The question of the spark of inspiration is, perhaps for most artists, an easier one to answer than the question of what fuels their creative process. How do they harness and sustain their creativity in order to develop their initial idea? Perhaps it is a question they are reluctant to answer, for fear of what it might be. This relationship between the artist and his/her work, as well as his/her personal relationships, is one that fascinated White at great length. In The Vivisector, White sought to examine to what extent the artist is obsequious to his/her art: does he/she cannibalise other human beings for artistic material? White’s biographer, David Marr, wrote:

'[White] thought that it was completely ridiculous to see artists as beautiful human beings. He knew that artists are ordinary human beings. He also knew that they were savage users, not only of places and stories, but also of people around them...'

White was less concerned with the spark of inspiration than the long process that followed. As a result, The Vivisector marks an important milestone in White’s long and fruitful writing career, as well as in Australian and international literature.

Patrick White

White was born in London in 1912 and brought to Australia before the age of one where his father owned a sheep farm. At thirteen he was sent to Cheltenham College in England, and later attended King’s College, Cambridge, where he studied modern languages. Upon graduating in 1935, he returned to Australia to work as a stockman in the New South Wales Snowy Mountains. He hated it there, and the landscape inspired the ugly and brooding setting of his first novel, Happy Valley, published in 1939.

In the late 1930s White spent time in the United States, during which time he wrote his second novel, The Living and the Dead. During World War II he served in the RAF in Greece and Palestine, and met Manoly Lascaris, a Greek army officer who would be become his life partner. After the war, White and Lascaris moved back to Australia, settling in a home in Sydney’s Centennial Park where the writer lived and worked until his death in 1990. While Australia features predominantly as the setting of his novels, they contain universal themes and are often praised for their humility and honesty.

White won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1957 for his novel Voss and again in 1961 for Riders in the Chariot. However, it was abroad that his work first received recognition, his first two novels being published in England and the US respectively. His third book, The Aunt’s Story, was the first to be published in Australia and was ill-received by Australian critics. In a letter to Geoffrey Dutton, White wrote of The Aunt’s Story, ‘I always find it irritating that only six Australians seemed to have liked it.’ Dutton claims that White had ‘divided loyalties,’ and that his early writing demonstrated a tension between his Australian home and European roots. White said of himself, ‘I feel what I am, I don’t feel particularly Australian. I live here and work here. A Londoner is what I think I am at heart but my blood is Australian and that’s what gets me going.’ White’s work is preoccupied with an intense meditative quality, generally considered at odds with the Australian persona. He described the ‘Great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions’ and he made clear his wish to bring humility and imagination into the national consciousness. It could be said he took a step towards this with The Vivisector.

The Vivisector

Published in 1970, The Vivisector is heralded as White’s magnum opus, earning him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973. It follows the life of painter Hurtle Duffield, from his time as a solipsistic but talented child, to hubristic recluse, and into his repentant twilight years. Hurtle is maniacally dedicated to his art, afflicted with a destructive anxiety for artistic perfection. The Vivisector purports a pervasive link between creativity and God. It explores the nature of creation and Creator, the divine and the divinity of the imagination. The imagination is, of course, the treasure trove of creativity that supplies the artistic mind, however, the imagination, as White asserts in the novel, is deeply a ‘posteriori’. Our feedback from our interactions with the world and other human beings is mandatorily drawn upon to fuel our imagination. However, White’s Hurtle draws upon his human subjects with brutal menace. Those in his life, particularly the women he courts, become the victims of his ‘demonic ego,’cannibalising them in his own artistic practice.

White’s resolute portrayal of the artist was not received favourably by some. Whilst under consideration for the Novel Prize, Academy secretary Karl Ragnar Gierow made clear his concerns regarding The Vivisector. Gierow assailed White for demeaning the image of the artist, claiming Hurtle Duffield to be depicted as a user and consumer of human beings. Geirow’s concerns were not shared with the rest of the prize committee and the Nobel Prize was awarded to White ‘for an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature.’ However, Geirow reservations were not unfounded. White’s protagonist can be at times enigmatic and shocking, with confronting moments peppered throughout the book, such as the frustrated painter smearing his own feces on a self-portrait, an allusion to the statement by Alexander Pushkin comparing art to defecating. Although it was Hurtle’s cannibalisation, exploiting his personal relationships to service his art, that was of most concern to Gierow. Geoffrey Dutton claims of Hurtle, “All his life he ruthlessly makes use of anyone or anything that will help him to become a better artist.” In The Vivisector, the artist is an exploiter of muses, reducing them to physical commodities. This is evident in Hurtle’s adulterous relationship with the disturbed and depraved Hero Pavloussi. When Hurtle’s artistic expression begins to suffer as a result of her beauty, she becomes vulgar to him and the only way he can curb his desire for her is to transmute her into his art – subsuming her into his imagination and onto canvas, destroying her in the process.

In many ways, White’s novel is an introspective profile of the conflict within the artist – the physical creature who creates with both mind and hand. As a result Hurtle experiences a confused and endless discord between the physical and metaphysical. As a child he is convinced that only his thoughts are real, and upon fighting in the trenches of the First World War, commits his art to ‘this physical life.’ This dichotomy between the real and the abstract is carried throughout his life, acknowledging ‘the great discrepancy between aesthetic truth and sleazy reality.’ He considers his body an animal that feeds his mind, or his ‘creative half.’ From this he experiences a kind of hedgehog’s unique to artists. Eugene Delacroix decries, ‘Loneliness is the torment of my soul,’ but this is particularly true of Hurtle. The young Hurtle rebels against the bourgeois and specious values of his adoptive family, precipitating his life of alienation. Aware of the artist’s need of isolation, but also his need for human subjects – for creative muses – he is reduced to a life of physical and inner torment.

However, it is this torment that seems to endear Hurtle to the reader. Despite his ills, he seems to become a martyr for the creative practice. In later life he is partially paralysed by a stroke. How can we think of a frail old man as a monster? Rather, White portrays the artist as the cultural sin-eater and purer of the soul because he allows it to be dirtied, nearer to truth as a result. This is where the novel derives its title: the artist is the vivisector of the human animal, dissecting the form in order to understand it’s inner machinations: the human condition. As a result, the artist is brought into closer quarters to God, vivisector and illuminator, to a higher level of truth.

The Vivisector is a novel of dense complexity, with myriad methodologies with which to approach it (in which respect, the reader too becomes the vivisectionist). In the end, Hurtle’s redemption comes with the recognition that, perhaps, for his whole life he has been misunderstood. The artistic life is burdened with the responsibility of extracting some form of truth from the world, with cruelty merely being a by-product of such a life that we should hence forgive. In acknowledging that his biography, the story of his life, should be called ‘The Monster of All Time,’ perhaps White was offering a form of repentance. It raises the question of how the writer saw himself: as a cannibalistic monster, a purveyor of truth, or both.

By Matt Young