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Nietzsche in Australia

Nietzsche en Australie
Nietzsche en Australia
Michael Hollington
p. 85-101


Cet article propose une lecture critique de la présence de Nietzsche dans la culture et la littérature australiennes, selon l'évolution de son influence ambigüe à travers différents textes. Si on note en partie des phénomènes assez douteux - pleins de misogynie, de xénophobie et de racisme, comme le roman This Love Business de John Fearn, on trouve aussi des chefs d’œuvres de la littérature australienne inspirés de Nietzsche, comme le roman Voss de Patrick White.

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1In what follows I attempt to trace some aspects (few in number, but many-sided, perhaps) of Nietzsche’s presence in Australian literature, The paper began life as something quite limited, as an intended brief consideration of the possibly Nietzschean aspects of Patrick White’s representation of Leichhardt in Voss. But as I started to explore the topic, I became aware of its potential dimensions, far exceeding those of a short paper ; it became quite clear, above all, that Nietzsche is in fact one of the essential reference-points of Australian literature as a whole, not merely a locally relevant ’source’ for this or that writer. Moreover, he began to appear to be so in such a complex and confusing way that I felt that to say anything even moderately useful about recent or contemporary manifestations of his impact it would be necessary to go back a long way and try to sort out a number of tangled threads of fact, myth and ideology.

  • 1 John Docker, Australian Cultural Elites: Intellectual Traditions in Sydney and Melbourne, Sydney, A (...)

2At this stage it became clear too that any serious investigation would have to be an interdisciplinary one involving in particular intellectual and cultural as well as literary history - with John Docker’s book on Australian élites, perhaps, as an initial model1 - and that it would need to inquire how and why Nietzsche’s ideas had proved so attractive and adaptable in the Australian context. Such a history, I also glimpsed, could be nothing if not critical, for it would need to encompass not only the ’facts’ of Nietzsche’s reception in Australia but the tradition of interpretative and critical commentary on that cultural phenomenon, itself helping to transmit and transmute the original impulse . It would need, I surmised, to be responsive both to the evidence of Australian culture’s vigorous attention to European philosophy in the twentieth century, and to the signs of limitations and even pathologies that Nietzsche may have unwittingly helped to feed. It would have to consider not only the major writers and their most important work, but also some material of a varyingly dubious and disquieting character.

3I thus felt driven quite early on to extend my initial focus, though it was also quite obvious that I could offer here only the merest sketch and gesture towards the book-length study that the subject demands. What struck me first, asking the question why Nietzsche has become such a fundamental component of Australian culture, was the perception that he enters Australian consciousness at a crucial moment, in the 1890s, at a point when nationalism is beginning to flower and to produce for the first time a determined effort at making and sustaining a distinctive national tradition. Biological metaphors of a suspect kind - the kind that, (in Freud’s phrase) equating ’phylogeny with ontogeny’, often seems to consort with nationalisms and accounts of national developments - almost involuntarily began to suggest themselves; the temptation to resist them was checked by the feeling that they might indeed, in the tradition in question, have generated their own conscious momentum. In other words, the commonplace that the earliest influences upon an emergent national culture may be amongst the most decisive and enduring ones seemed to gain plausibility if I considered that, partly through willed endeavour and partly through unconscious imitation, the contingent international currency of Nietzsche in the nineties might have been cumulatively worked up into an enduring feature of the Australian literary tradition. 1 thought of the parallel of the history of the American novel, of how the fact that just about the first significant American novels (the works of Charles Brockden Browne) are determined essays in a contemporary vogue, that of a ’Gothic’ inspired from German romanticism, had given the romantic and gothic strands in American literary culture a continuing significance - in this case at least one that would seem to be out of all proportion to the actual merit of Browne’s work.

  • 2 On pp. 202-208 of the Bodley Head edition, London, 1958.

4But then the question became: why, out of the many available influences and forces of the 1890s, was it particularly Nietzsche that attracts Australian attention? Here it seemed to me that I should be wary, at the outset, of constructing ’Nietzsche’s philosophy’ as any single or stable set of doctrines, capable of authoritative and unambiguous definition by expert or other commentators and interpreters. Indeed, I felt that it could be that the distinctive polymorphousness of Nietzsche’s thought, its ability to bear an unusual number of various, not to say conflicting and contradictory interpretations, and to cohabit with a heterogeneous array of competing ideologies, might be one of the keys to explaining its durable impact in Australia. Having registered this caveat to myself, however, I began, with the chapter « Nietzsche in Australia » in Jack Lindsay’s Life Rarely Teils as a starting-point2, to assemble some possible aspects of the appeal:

    • 3 Quoted from Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley, California, University of Cal (...)

    The fact of Nietzsche’s stress upon a European decadence, and the need for a renewal, which - it could easily be felt - might have to take place elsewhere: in the Southern hemisphere perhaps (Gauguin, writing to Strindberg in 1895 after returning from his first stay in Tahiti, certainly did feel this, contrasting « Civilization from which you suffer » with « barbarism which is for me a rejuvenation »3).

  1. The fact of his anti-Englishness, enabling him to be seen as a clear alternative to the dominant culture in colonial and (for a long time) post-colonial Australia.

  2. The interpretative possibilities of the idea of the eternal return, suggesting that societies with less-than-glorious recent histories might look back to more distant and illustrious cultural antecedents capable of reincarnation in the present (Ireland, with its legendary race of past giants and heroes seeking resurrection in nationalist deeds of heroism, was equally receptive to Nietzsche in this period - with Yeats a major instance of his influence - and offered parallels and perhaps direct inspiration to the Australian response).

  3. The emphasis upon the will, capable of appealing both in a crude general way, in an environment where the need for that faculty was felt in many mundane aspects of life, and in a more particular way to the intellectual minority, for whom cultural activity itself could be felt as demanding peculiar effort in hostile circumstance.

  4. The predominantly masculine insistence on male identity and male virtues, attractive in a distinctively male-oriented society.

  5. The distinctive religiosity, anti-Christian in emphasis, yet providing a framework of belief for a society which, with its altogether different origins, lacked that religiously-given sense of mission and purpose that was an important current of (for instance) North American nationalism.

  • 4 See Dorothy Green, Henry Handel Richardson and her fiction, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1986, p. 177.
  • 5 See David S. Thatcher, Nietzsche in England 1890-1914: The Growth of a Reputation, Toronto & Buffal (...)

5Some or all of these, I felt, might be offered as possible aspects of a distinctively Australian Nietzscheanism. Nevertheless, it soon became clear that one might run the risk of ignoring similarities with parallel manifestations elsewhere, especially in the early period, and so overstate its uniqueness. The 1890s was a Nietzschean decade everywhere, and two of the early converts from Australia - Henry Handel Richardson and Rosa Campbell Praed - both spent this period in Europe and gained their exposure to Nietzsche there. Richardson was married to the distinguished Germanist J. G. Robertson, later to become Professor of German at London University, the doyen, perhaps, of German studies in England from that period on until the 1930s. Attracted at an early stage to Victorian theories of history, he was well informed about Nietzsche and wrote on him in the influential 90s magazine Cosmopolis: it is clear that he added to Richardson’s consciousness of the philosopher4. What is symptomatic too of a more general background is that in the cases both of Praed and of Richardson, as of other Australian disciples to succeed them, an interest in Nietzsche was fused with a perhaps even greater responsiveness to the then fashionable doctrines of Spiritualism. Richardson’s father was in fact the first president of the Victorian Association for Progressive Spiritualism (the word ’progressive’ would later, in Mrs. Praed’s work, signify the specific Nietzschean/Spiritualist connection); his death, from syphilis, in the novelist’s childhood, was a traumatic event for her, and no doubt strengthened at a later date the attraction she felt towards the philosopher, who had suffered a similar fate. Spiritualism had originated in America in the 1840s, and swept through Europe in the 60s and 70s; its devotees were self-evidently attracted by the theory of the eternal return, and helped to spread Nietszche’s fame in the 1890s, The Theosophical Review contained an article on Nietzsche in 1894 - an early date for the philosopher’s reception in England; as well as Yeats, figures like Madame Blavatsky herself, Ouspensky, Gurdjeff and R.D. Bucke were in varying admixtures either Nietzschean spiriritualists or spiritualist Nietzscheans. A.R. Orage, later editor of the quintessentially Nietzschean modernist journal The New Age, started out in the Theosophical society in 18965. There is thus a broad international context to some of the specific emphases of the first, significantly female Australian Nietzscheans that I looked into: Richardson and Praed.

  • 6 A, D. Hope, Native Companions, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1974: pp. 254-255.

6In the case of Richardson’s novel Maurice Guest, for instance, a second problem raised its head. To what extent are Nietzschean readings of this text not so much a reflection of the novel’s own core of significance as a projection of willed mythologies, themselves admittedly partly derived from the tradition of Australian Nietzscheanism? The question is a matter of contest and debate between Australian critics - A.D. Hope and Dorothy Green, for example - reflecting in itself some of the difficulties that beset a balanced assessment of this aspect of the national cultural debt. Hope, writing in the middle fifties in the cold-war Leavisite manner, himself attracted to vitalist discourses in which the ’heroic’, the natural’, the ’creative’, etc. are habitually pitted against the degeneracy of contemporary culture, has no hesitation in proclaiming the novel’s essential and unambiguous Nietzschean derivation. Schilsky for him is « the creative genius, the Dionysiac artist par excellence », Krafft « the philosopher, the transvaluer of values ». Maurice Guest, by contrast, gets little attention and less sympathy from Hope; he is a representative of « the herd, the servile spirits, those who are incapable of the energy, the intellectual, artistic or merely social will to power », his inadequacy realised in the analysis of his hopeless and masochistic pursuit of Louise who, herself endowed with the female ’equivalent’ of male creativity - an enhanced capacity for love - must needs recognize and submit to the greater vitality of the artist figure6.

  • 7 Thatcher, p. 271.
  • 8 See Norman Lindsay, Letters of Norman Lindsay, R, G. Howarthand A. W. Barker (eds), Sydney, Angus (...)

7It is not hard to feel a good degree of sympathy with Dorothy Green’s attack upon this account of the novel. Her strategy is to minimise the Künstlerroman features of Maurice Guest, and to resituate its centre in the subtle psychological notation of sexual obsession. Yet she too has her weaknesses - she surely overstates her case, for instance, when she doubts that Richardson could have been both Nietzschean and spiritualist and feminist; as Thatcher remarks of the period, « Nietzsche’s ideality was felt so strongly that it could be allied to many movements of an idealistic nature which he expressly denounced, such as socialism, imperialism, mysticism, and feminism7 ». There would seem to be no way of denying that Maurice Guest does in fact contain Nietzschean themes - its central figure Schilsky, like Richard Strauss, composes a work named Also Sprach Zarathustra , and, like Mahler or a lesser-known Swiss-Australian protégé of Norman Lindsay in the 20s, Adolphe Beutler8, sets Das trunkene Lied in particular. Where Green is on stronger ground than Hope, though, is her greater awareness that the mere presence of Nietzschean ideas in no way implies that uncritical wholesale acceptance of them seemingly espoused in his essay: she, for instance, observes that Das trunkene Lied comes from a part of Zarathrustra from which the idea of the superman is conspicuously absent, and that it offers a philosophical perspective upon that pathology of desire which is the novel’s focus.

  • 9 See Vincent Buckley's 'Utopianism and Vitalism,' Quadrant III, 2 (1958-9), 39-51, reprinted in Grah (...)
  • 10 See Noel Macainsh, Nietzsche in Australia: a literary inquiry into a nationalistic Ideology, Munich (...)

8Before proceeding to Mrs. Praed, it is worth noting that similar debates surround Brennan’s relation to Nietzsche. He too had been in Germany, experiencing Berlin in 1892-4 as an archetypical flâneur, wandering the streets of the city in an isolated rêverie of reflection upon the new ideas and sensations to which he was then exposed. But against the notion that Nietzsche was pre-eminent amongst these, expressed for instance in Vincent Buckley’s assertion (again a product of the 1950s) that « Brennan, Hope and Richardson... are all plainly drawn to a metaphysic of the will derived from Nietzsche9 », Noel Macainsh produces the evidence of Bren-nan’s annotations of Novalis. Here he pencils Nietzsche’s initials against some thoroughly uncomplimentary commentary upon (for instance): « Das Ideal der ästhetischen Grösse... Es ist das Maximum des Barbaren - und hat leider in diesen Zeiten der verwildernden Kultur gerade unter den größesten Schwächlingen, sehr viele Anhänger erhalten. » « the ideal of aesthetic greatness... It is the maximum of barbarity and in these times of bestialising culture it unfortunately has found very many adherents precisely among the greatest weaklings10 ». Again, then, it seems that those who wish to claim Brennan for the Australian Nietzschean tradition must negotiate some quite difficult currents of attraction and repulsion.

  • 11 London : Chatto & Windus, 1901, p. 47.

9Matters are perhaps easier in the case of Rosa Campbell Praed. As is so often the case in literary history, the lesser writer may provide the clearer mirror of what, around the turn of the century, Australians characteristically saw in Nietzsche. Her novel As A Watch in The Night (1901) taking its title from the Book of Common Prayer, begins with two characters looking at the Thames: the river provides, as the novel’s leitmotif, a symbol of eternal return. History repeats itself - the Thames is merely the successor of the Nile and the Tiber as the site of an imperial civilization. Mrs Praed explores the proposition that her central figures are reincarnations - we first find one of them wondering ’whether I am really Dorothea Queste or a sort of survival from some Delphic temple or Arcadian grove11’. Her artist son Alaric clearly adumbrates the return of barbarism, and he falls in love with a beautiful half-aborigine girl, Kaia, from North Queensland, the bearer (like Gauguin’s Tahitian new Eve) of new vitality, As in Richardson’s book there is a love-triangle, or rather, several: Dorothea has been for some years the lover of the leader of a new political party - Gavan Sarel of the Progressives. His power-base is Ireland, and he seems in his ideas and relationships to be some kind of image of Charles Stewart Parnell. His aim is to establish a different kind of political order - the House of Lords will be abolished first and then later « the time will come when I shall be Dictator of England ».

10But this Irish superman is ensnared by woman. He too succumbs to the « traditional unreserve of the South Sea maiden », adding to the tangles of love relationship. He takes Kaia to Ireland, where she demonstrates very clearly her credentials as a fit consort at a place called Kilburra, which seems to combine aborigine and Irish morphemes in an appropriate way. Here she disperses an ugly-looking Irish mob, representative of Nietzsche’s inferior herd:

She called out something in an unknown tongue - an appeal perhaps, to the Arruan Zeus - which was as effective, any way, as an Olympian thunderbolt. She bade them strike if they dared. Needless to say, not a shillelagh moved.

11Needless to say, Dorothea struggles with jealousy, both on behalf of herself and of her son. She does not want to betray Sarel, however, especially since to do so would be to repeat the misdeeds she had committed in a previous Roman incarnation, when, as Herennia, she had betrayed a great man. But the forces around her are too strong for her; she too has another admirer, who sees the opportunity to be rid of Sarei; the secrets of the would be dictator’s love-life are let out, ending his political career, leaving him no choice but to die in Dorothea’s arms. It is a willed, positive act, to let others carry on, for, as the novel’s concluding wisdom has it, « Out of dying life comes, and the life is Love ».

  • 12 Lindsay, Letters, p. 625.
  • 13 See Chris Baidick, The Social Mission of English Criticism 1848-1932, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1983

12It may be the point at which to introduce Norman Lindsay, with his own enthusiastic embrace of Nietzsche’s dictum « Die at the right time », and its special applicability to women, who, according to Lindsay, « perish with the death of their sex-allure12 ». He too encountered Nietzsche round about 1900, buying Zarathustra first in Melbourne in parts, in Thomas Common’s translation. Whilst British Nietzscheanism suffered a mortal blow in the First World War, succumbing to that revulsion against German culture that has helped to shape many cultural formations since, including most University English departments in the Anglo-Saxon world13, Lindsay’s own held out in conscious defiance of British cultural hegemony. Whether or not his own Australian brand of Nietzsche gains or suffers from its isolationism, he is certainly one of the major conduits whereby the philosopher gained his hold in the antipodes.

  • 14 See Jack Lindsay, Life Rarely Tells, London, The Bodley Head, 1958, p. 174.

13Lindsay’s version equates the superman with the artist. His calculatedly preposterous, elitist provocation, in Creative Effort, the postwar bible of Lindseian Nietzscheanism, is the cry that « earth exists only as a mudflat for the generation of a few geniuses14 ». Great creative artists are the fruit of the same family tree - they descend, not from Jesse, though, but from the Greeks. The gods that came down from Mount Olympus begot children upon mortals; the blood of the gods runs in this race of Olympians. This biological myth - the belief that that blood still runs through a certain race of superior individuals - perhaps helped to sustain Lindsay through difficult experiences of cultural isolation and hostility.

14I find it difficult to avoid the conclusion that with Norman Lindsay we confront some of the deficiencies and limitations of Australian Nietzscheanism. Unlike its counterpart in Europe or elsewhere it goes together with a detestation of all forms of Modernism in art and culture. Modernism is identified with and represented as that decadence that Nietzsche diagnosed in the European psyche, as it was later by the Nazis. One can perhaps sympathise, at least understand why: Australia had not yet really experienced that great flowering of bourgeois art that in Europe could be seen as the shackle that the new revolutions were in the process of throwing off. But for good or ill, it can be claimed that Lindsay’s influence was a factor in inhibiting and retarding the introduction of Modernism in Australia. Paradoxically, perhaps, it can be argued that his own sufferings at the hands of philistines generated a compensatory philistinism of which first his own art, and later that of others, were to feel the effects.

  • 15 Henry Handel Richardson, Maurice Guest, London, Virago Press, 1981, pp. 175-176.

15Moreover, Lindsay’s distinctive effort at recommending a depoliticised Nietzsche, in which only the individual and his ’creative efforts’ shall be of moment ( it was not only the English, he felt, who had perverted the master by combining him with social creeds; Nietzsche himself was in part responsible as well) produced all too familiar results. Attempting to rescue Nietzsche from his political fantasies, he merely reveals others of his own. He hates Christians, Germans, Bolsheviks; amongst individuals whose historical consequences are seen as disastrous he numbers Jesus Christ, Robespierre, Napoleon, Hohenzollern and Lenin. Some traditional Australian racisms resurface in such statements as « Fortunately the mission of intellectual development was not entrusted to the East, or who knows down what dark hole it would have fallen » or « the whole collective effort of the East could not have written Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony ». Besides such depressing ethnic philistinisms, we get in Creative Effort, by way of Mitsingen with the antisemitic strands in, or extrapolated from, Nietzsche’s work, such pearls of wisdom offered as proof of the degeneracy of Christianity as the rhetorical question « what higher message could one expect from the mind of a Jew ». « Now for Also schrie Zenophobia! », yells an American in Maurice Guest, just before Schilsky’s plays his musical version15; he might have been introducing this aspect of Norman Lindsay.

16Norman’s Nietzscheanism passed to his son Jack, for ten years his father’s most ardent disciple: he it was who would reintroduce Nietzsche in England in the twenties with his magazine The London Aphrodite. The worship of the father probably has origins in Jack’s personal experience as an adolescent - the parents having separated, Norman seemed an Olympian indeed to Jack in Brisbane until one day in 1918 a copy of Zarathustra arrived down from the mountain in Queensland. Later, he appears as one of the most articulate, self-conscious and critical of Australian Nietscheans - partly because he was eventually in large measure to reconsider and revalue the in­fluence. Even at an early phase of his development, he shows a feeling for the contradictions within Nietszche in his Nietzsche contra Nietzsche. And he furnishes a number of materials for what seems to me the necessary critical overview.

17For one thing he himself offers a useful explanation of why Nietzsche took root in Australia. He sees the philosopher as administering to the peculiar problems of Australian culture in the early part of the century - its need to conduct a double fight against philistinism and modernity. The idea of the eternal return could furnish grounds for the hope of an Australian Renaissance, « a new Grand Art linked with Praxiteles and Rubens, Rembrandt and Turner, Aristophanes and Shakespeare, Catullus and Keats, Rabelais and Blake ». To work for this meant the rejection of modernism, and the turning upon it of Nietzsche’s critique of decadence.

18Jack Lindsay sees this large presence of Nietzsche in Australian culture, as mediated through his father, as at once stimulating and crippling. What was positive in Norman’s Nietzscheanism, he thinks, was the way in which it « used to concentrate his love of energy and fertility, his contempt of other-worldliness and of the lies by which men shroud cruelty and repression », But he is also sharply critical of the strongly idealist strain in it. He satirises his father’s spiritualist phase during and after the First World War, consequent upon the loss of his brother Reg in battle: « he had some long sessions with Shakespeare, Apollo and other immortals, as well as with his father and Reg... he felt sure that he had come in touch with the blood-brotherhood to which he belonged ». He sees his father’s work as seriously compromised by his abstract, transcendentalist version of Nietzsche, contradicting itself by attempting to promote ’earth’ but elevating the art-image to such an extent above the material world that it became « cut off from the earth, the mother, deriving the last resort from some pure (male, paternal) essence ». Thus he also engages in some kind of polemic against Norman’s sexual doctrines, appearing to align himself with the short shrift they got from that European Nietzschean D.H. Lawrence when P.R. Stephensen offered himself as some kind of mediator between the two. Perhaps predictably, the father regarded this revolt of the son dismissively and reductively, as the symptom of his siding with the mother in the marital break-up.

  • 16 London, Hutchinson, 1929, p. 106.

19To illustrate at this point some of the possible consequences of Norman Lindsay’s Nietzscheanizing view of sexuality in the 1920s we may turn briefly to a novel entitled This Love Business published in May 1929 by the University of Melbourne law graduate John Fearn Wannan under the name of John Fearn. It is concerned with female degeneracy, appearing to recommend to those males who have to deal with this problem the Nietzschean recipe of the whip, at a metaphorical level if not at a literal one. The central female figure, Beatrice Barry, is a ’flapper’, addicted to jazz, which stands (as in British contemporaries like Aldington and Wyndham Lewis) as the representative symbol of decadent Modernism. Her cousin Roger Edgeware, is concerned about her morals, not least because he has marital designs upon her. His concern and chagrin rise to critical levels when she elopes from Melbourne with a middle-aged married man; in his flabbergasted state, he can get no further than muttering « she’s just a- a-16». The man in question, whose name Salvato of course signifies his Christian, herd mentality, is a businessman who has bought an island in New Ireland, to which he takes her so that she may contribute to his aim of civilising and Christianising the natives by running a school.

20Unfortunately, he too learns about her ’past’. Goaded by the iso­lation of the island into demonic fury, he first literally turns the whip on her, then devises the more fiendish punishment of offering her as a prize to one of his native lieutenants. Fortunately help is at hand, in the person of an ex-World War 1 Anzac of a masterful nature: his name is Donald Pole and his initials stand for ’Dominant Personality’. This superman is scornful of Salvato s pious attitude towards blacks : he stands for a much more robust method of treating women, savages, and people in general:

In his own experience, both with natives and whites, people love and respect those who master them. His philosophy of life, deep-seated in his experience, was based on domination. To him, as to millions of others in this merry world of ours, an essential factor of love was domination over the beloved.

21With such a decisive mindset, he is of course able to help her escape to Rabaul and eventually to Melbourne, where she reforms to the extent of becoming a successful businesswoman. Roger, meanwhile, having followed her as far as Rabaul, succumbs to an even more degenerate and licentious femme fatale, Mrs. Tanner, who forces him into a hellish marriage of drunken infidelity from which he only escapes when one night she goes too far and perishes in a kerosene Götterdämmerung by smashing down a burning lamp upon herself. Roger returns to Melbourne, only to find that Beaty is engaged to be married to a rich man whom she does not love. This time, however, Roger manages to get his act together, with the aid of an older guru who councils masterliness, and at the wedding itself manages to pull off a series of power-plays that toss Beaty at the last into his arms.

  • 17 Ann Maree McCulloch, A Tragic Vision: The Novels of Patrick White, St. Lucia, University of Queensl (...)

22To some it may seem shocking at this point to turn to White. The context 1 have just been examining does at least have the merit of tending to dispel any automatic hush of respect that might, and perhaps sometimes does, attend the invocation of the name of Nietzsche in connection even with one of the masterpieces of Australian literature. Voss has certainly given rise to a number of strongly Nietzschean readings, most recently, perhaps, that of A. M. McCulIoch. Her view, in A Tragic Vision : The Novels of Patrick White, is that each of White’s novels, up to Voss and beyond it, represents an evolutionary stage towards the realization of an achieved representation of the ’superman’, able to assume the mantle of divinity in a world without God. She does not contend that Voss attains this goal, but her argument is that he fails not because the Nietzschean project itself is seen in a critical light but because his is a mistaken interpretation of what it entails. His error is to want to become God, not like Zarathustra to replace him. His failure is tragic because the process of suffering that he undergoes enables him in the end, when it is too late, to realise his mistake and to recognize « that it his human self which is of greatest importance17 ».

  • 18 See Manfred Mackenzie, "The Tree of Man: A Genetic Approach", in John Colmer (ed), Approaches to th (...)
  • 19 See Dorothy Green, «Voss: Stubborn Music," in W.S.Ramson (ed), The Australian Experience: Critical (...)

23Her argument has the merit of clarity and coherence, and many of her points are convincing. But it seems to me that her work, which retains the marks of its ’thesis’ character, tends to run the risk of reducing Voss and the other novels to an abstract scheme, in the process of which the danger of oversimplification is not wholly avoided. I tend to agree with Manfred Mackenzie’s account, which emphasises the « deeply sympathetic, yet for all this unrelentingly critical » nature of the novel’s confrontation with Nietzsche18 - which could stand, as we have seen, for some of the best strands in the Australian Nietzschean tradition. Ideas seem to be dramatised and passionately debated here, rather than expounded and endorsed; Nietzsche is a component of the debate, rather than the single source that provides its terms. The power and energy of the novel, for me, reside in the dynamic collisions of ideas in the search for a transcendent level which cannot be adequately named in any existing discourse, Nietzschean or otherwise. In this it may resemble, as Dorothy Green (herself again skeptical of the Nietzschean approach to White) suggests, the workings of an older tradition of German idealism, represented in the Hegelian dialectic19, or as I see it (scandalously for some Australian critics) the methods of the most successful novels of D.H. Lawrence.

  • 20 Page references to Patrick White's Voss are to the Viking Press edition, New York, 1957.

24I do not have space here to offer anything but a kind of epiphany of the grounds that might be offered to support this view, and its possibilities for reading Voss. It can perhaps be best introduced by means of a primary focus upon style, and initially, upon the distinctive habit of afterthought. « There is a man here, miss, asking for your uncle » said Rose « is the novel’s first sentence, followed in a second paragraph by its successor « And stood breathing20 » (p. 3). Its last two are Laura Trevelyan’s reply to the question concerning how the truth about Voss will be known:

The air will tell us,’ Miss Trevelyan said.
By which time she had grown hoarse, and fell to wondering aloud whether she had brought her lozenges, (p. 442)

25In between - to offer a third instance of the technique concerning Voss himself - there is the encounter with Judd’s mate:

Would you perhaps have an interest in the expedition, that you are come to see him?
« Yes, » said the stranger. « Voss. »
And did click his heels together funny, the woman related ever after, (p. 188)

26There appears to be a recognizable structure here: speech is followed by gesture, caught as in a kind of cinematographic freeze frame in which time is arrested. In the novel’s concluding sentences, possibly the most telling example, there is also an idealist/materialist opposition, the visionary assertion ironically challenged by the reminder that in speech air is forced through a channel which is subject to wear and tear according to the duration and stridency of the utterance. But we realize by now that the same opposition had been present in the previous enunciations: the arch-idealist Voss is introduced at the outset by the strongly physical Rose Portion, and her pause for breath again stresses the materiality of language; Voss’s own self-identification, too, is ironically undercut by the epiphany of his rigidity that becomes the substance of the woman’s ’immortalising’ narrative.

27If we take these instances as representative, the novel’s principle becomes dialogic, not univocal. The visionary yearning to transcend the limits of physical experience that unites Voss and Laura as the two halves of a fragmented Platonic whole is at all times confronted with realist reminders of limitation (it is a novel which, as Green observes, achieves a rare balance, in structure and tone, of contrasting principles). A final example concerning Laura listening to Voss must do the work here of further commentary:

She was too hot of course, in the thick dress she had put on for a colder day, with the result that all words became great round weights. She did not raise her head for those the German spoke, but heard them fall, and loved their shape. So far departed from that rational level to which she had determined to adhere, her own thoughts were grown obscure, even natural. She did not care. It was lovely. She would have liked to sit upon a rock and listen to words, not of any man, but detached, mysterious poetic words that she alone would interpret through some sense inherited from sleep. Herself disembodied. Air joining air experiences a voluptuousness no less intense because imperceptible. She smiled a little at this solution of sea and glare. It was the sun that was reddening her face. The hem of her skirt had become quite irregular, she saw, with black scallops of heavy water, (p. 58)

  • 21 « The superman is a premature ideal, it presupposes man ».

28I should end perhaps by acknowledging that little of what has been considered here bears much relation to those elements in Nietzsche’s subtle, rigorously challenging nihilism that are still so much admired and alive in contemporary French philosophy, in the work of Foucault and Derrida for example. Despite the high quality of its best moments - Richardson’s alert and sensitive rendering of intellectual Nietzscheanism in the 90s, Jack Lindsay’s exemplary wrestling with Nietzsche and his father, above all, White’s magnificent novel - the fact must be faced , I think, that a sizeable chunk of the Australian tradition is devoted on the whole to promoting a ’sentimental’ or ’vulgar’ Nietzscheanism, centred around the idea of the superman, that lays itself open to the hammer blow of Karl Kraus’s great aphorism « Der Übermensch ist ein verfrühtes Ideal, dass den Menschen voraussetzt21 ». It is represented perhaps, not only in some of the less scrupulous writing I have quoted above, but in mass culture ; I glimpse it in the daily projections of fantasy and desire in newspaper mythologies of the great ’players’ of politics and business, in their accounts of ’titanic’ struggles between such as Keating and Howard or Murdoch and Packer. I even fancy I detect it in higher education, in that contemporary chorus of demands for « mission statements », appearing to require such quintessentially unheroic creatures as academics to outline the stages through which they intend to pass to become supermen. To be a Voss is a powerful, painful, complex fate; to masquerade as one can be farcical.

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1 John Docker, Australian Cultural Elites: Intellectual Traditions in Sydney and Melbourne, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1974.

2 On pp. 202-208 of the Bodley Head edition, London, 1958.

3 Quoted from Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley, California, University of California Press, 1971, p. 82.

4 See Dorothy Green, Henry Handel Richardson and her fiction, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1986, p. 177.

5 See David S. Thatcher, Nietzsche in England 1890-1914: The Growth of a Reputation, Toronto & Buffalo, University of Toronto Press, 1970, p. 220.

6 A, D. Hope, Native Companions, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1974: pp. 254-255.

7 Thatcher, p. 271.

8 See Norman Lindsay, Letters of Norman Lindsay, R, G. Howarthand A. W. Barker (eds), Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1979, p. 202.

9 See Vincent Buckley's 'Utopianism and Vitalism,' Quadrant III, 2 (1958-9), 39-51, reprinted in Graham Johnston (ed), Australian Literary Criticism, Melbourne and London, Oxford University Press, 1962, pp. 16-29. The passage quoted is from p. 24 in this latter version.

10 See Noel Macainsh, Nietzsche in Australia: a literary inquiry into a nationalistic Ideology, Munich, Verlag für Dokumentation und Werbung, 1975.

11 London : Chatto & Windus, 1901, p. 47.

12 Lindsay, Letters, p. 625.

13 See Chris Baidick, The Social Mission of English Criticism 1848-1932, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1983.

14 See Jack Lindsay, Life Rarely Tells, London, The Bodley Head, 1958, p. 174.

15 Henry Handel Richardson, Maurice Guest, London, Virago Press, 1981, pp. 175-176.

16 London, Hutchinson, 1929, p. 106.

17 Ann Maree McCulloch, A Tragic Vision: The Novels of Patrick White, St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1983, p. 18.

18 See Manfred Mackenzie, "The Tree of Man: A Genetic Approach", in John Colmer (ed), Approaches to the Novel, Adelaide, Rigby, 1983, pp. 90-102.

19 See Dorothy Green, «Voss: Stubborn Music," in W.S.Ramson (ed), The Australian Experience: Critical Essays on Australian Nouels, Canberra, ANU Press, 1974, pp. 284-310.

20 Page references to Patrick White's Voss are to the Viking Press edition, New York, 1957.

21 « The superman is a premature ideal, it presupposes man ».

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Michael Hollington, « Nietzsche in Australia », Babel, 1 | 1996, 85-101.

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Michael Hollington, « Nietzsche in Australia », Babel [En ligne], 1 | 1996, mis en ligne le 23 mai 2013, consulté le 26 février 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/babel.2944

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