William Blake and Patrick White

Patrick White was clearly deeply influenced by William Blake. Not only does his novel Riders in the Chariot (arguably his most radical religious novel) begin with a core quote about the power of the prophetic imagination from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, but White’s obsession with explicitly exploring the transformative power of art, of literature is central to William Blake’s deepest search. For Blake, for White, the prophet Ezekiel was an agent for showing mankind the path to a “perception of the infinite”. What does this, did this, mean? For Blake it meant enabling people to recognize that there was more than one way to experience reality, life, enabling people to see that the way they lived -seeing only materially, with the eyes- was a pale shadow of how they could live: seeing through the eyes. Blake demonstrates this through his poetry and painting, showing the way to an appreciation of the connections between life on earth and life as part of the cosmos. His poem written to his friend Thomas Butts on October 2nd 1800 (beginning  “To my Friend Butts I write/ My first Vision of Light…”) is one of the most convincing renditions of this kind of experience that pervades Blake’s work.

For Patrick White, it is the Aboriginal artist Alf Dubbo, who contains within himself something of this transformative power of art. In fact Patrick White seems to use Alf Dubbo almost as an agent to prove how art, when it is deeply embedded in  life- drawing its energy deeply from the mundane- has the power to repair the past, to create new beginnings. There is that wonderful scene in Chapter 14 (explored in class today) in which Alf Dubbo, hurting deeply over his seeming cowardice in not speaking out on behalf of his friend the Jew Himmelfarb (German for Colour of Heaven), suddenly brings into his imagination the vision of a painting which will heal this rift in his love for his friend. Himmelfarb had just been victim of a mock crucifixion -tied to a Jacaranda tree- by a group of Australian “Christians” committed to punishing the jews for their part in the Crucifixion. Patrick White writes about Alf “… when he could muster the strength for such an undertaking, he would touch the tree to life with blue.” Here the transformative power of art can bring a healing force to a scene of abandonment and despair. Alf’s painting will bring that Jacaranda into bloom:


Blog Questions for Week 10:

Q.1 From your knowledge and experience, do you agree or disagree with Patrick White (and Blake) in their assumption that literature- and all the arts- can have a transformative impact on a person’s life and experience? Begin with your own life. Does this idea ring true for you or not? Write a short paragraph basing your thoughts on what you know through experience. 

Q.2 Prepare a digital kit specifically on The Riders in the Chariot.

Q.3 What was Ezekiel’s vision? Does an understanding of this event help you to understand why Patrick White and William Blake focussed so much on Ezekiel in their creative work (see also Blake’s “A Vision of the Last Judgement”).

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