Riders in the Chariot

In the late 1950’s, the late Arthur Boyd painted a number of luminous and searing paintings about blackfellas.  They are called the Bride series or the like.  I used to have a print of one – striking images of a black man and a white bride in the Australian bush, they appeared to me then and now to show a phase in our national awakening.

I was looking at them again the other day in a book about Boyd.  Two things stood out.  One was the wide white eyes of the blackfellas, hunted or haunted and shifty (probably for the same reason, as in The Inquisitor of El Greco).  The other was the use of colour in the blackfellas.  Boyd had, I think, a thing about blue, especially that cobalt blue above the Shoalhaven, but in these paintings he uses shades of blue for the colour of the blackfella, and in the most confrontational painting, the blue becomes almost purple.

The late 1950’s was not an easy time for an artist in this country to broach the subject of race by looking at blackfellas and half-castes with white brides.  It must have taken some courage for this artist, who was as soft and gentle a man as you could find, to jolt his nation in this way.  It is the sort of thing that could easily lead to bloodshed in many parts of the world.  The author of the book referred to the character Alf Dubbo in the novel Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White that was published in 1961.  I do not know whether those paintings had any effect on White – if they did, his biographer did not appear to know of them – but the mention of Alf Dubbo led me to go back and read that novel, my favourite by that author, for the third time.  It is a truly astonishing work of art.

There are four riders in a spiritual chariot, people who have received some kind of light, people like seers or prophets, like spirits that may ride in chariots of fire.  They are for the most part also outcasts or misfits.

Miss (Mary) Hare is the child of a wealthy but loveless family that has a great mansion in the bush called Xanadu.  Plain and unsettling, the bourgeois life of the pastoralists passes her by, and as time goes, she merges into the mansion that merges into the landscape.  Dirty, wizened, and unkempt, she is at best a subject of pity to others in the small country town, who think that she is mad.  She may be, but she has a feeling for the earth that is denied to them – although not to the blackfellas, who are always called, and looked down on as, abos.

Mordecai Himmelfarb is a very intellectual German Jew who has literally seen the doors of the gas chambers.  His father had been baptised – he had sold out – to the mortification of his mother, and Mordecai has a load on his mind from the death of his wife.  He comes to Australia and renounces any position that he could have got as a distinguished man of letters.  The reason is simple.  ‘The intellect has failed us.’  He gets the most menial position in a factory in one of those country towns where reffos and misfits feel the full brunt of colonial small-mindedness.  Was this a place where this outcast of the world might look for redemption or even security?  Or would this escapee from the Final Solution find himself at risk in a land infected with the same Original Sin?

Ruth Joyner was born and brought up in England as an Evangelical Christian, a faith that moulded and sustained her all her life.  She loves her hymns, like the one about the ‘King in his royal State Riding in the clouds His chariot.’  She determined on her own to migrate here, and became a trusted servant to people as moneyed and unloving as the parents of Miss Hare.  For reasons that only God knows, she falls for and marries the iceman, Tom Godbold.  He is one of those no-good bastards who gets full, beats his wife, and then breeds.  Mrs Godbold, as she is called, bears all this and raises her children while taking in laundry in what is little more than a shed.  Tom finally buggers off on the night that Mrs Godbold puts on her hat and goes to get him back from the local knock-shop, Mrs Khalil’s.  Mrs Godbold is selfless, and wants to help both Miss Hare and the Jew, as he is called.  She is not an outcast as the others are, but she has the compassion of an elemental humanity, and we are not surprised at all when she is called ‘a kind of saint’.  Mrs Godbold is a solid as a rock, one of those broad-beamed women who survive, the only one of the four riders to do so.

Alf Dubbo is the half cast product of a grizzly meth-driven tryst on the river bank between a gin and an unknown white.  As a half cast outside any tribe, he is lost to the world – and as the author asks, why should we attribute his difference to the black bit rather than some Irish part?  Alf is brought up by an Anglican vicar who teaches him Latin verbs and buggers him.  Being set adrift, Alf stays for a while with a slut on a rubbish tip before taking up with a hooker who lives with a queen.  She and another queen then violate Alf in a worse way than the vicar.  They steal his art.  You see Alf, the blackfella, could see things that white men could not, and he had a gift to express his vision – a very spiritual vision – in art.  Poor Alf could never find someone to trust, but when he goes to work at the same factory as the Jew, the two feel an affinity between outcasts.  He is so down and out that one night, when he has been on the grog, he takes himself to Mrs Kahlil’s.  When he falls over, pissed, he experiences the native kindness of Mrs Godbold.

Each of the four riders speaks of the chariot, but it is very far from being a leitmotif.  White said:

What I want to emphasise through my four ‘Riders’ – an orthodox refugee intellectual Jew, a mad Erdgeist of an Australian spinster, an evangelical laundress, and a half-caste Aboriginal painter – is that all faiths, whether religious, humanistic, instinctive, or the creative artist’s act of praise, are in fact one.

And he might have added something to the effect that about that which we cannot follow, we must be silent – or give in to the creative artist’s act of praise.  Somehow the novel prefigures the work of Manning Clark who was haunted, as the riders may have been, by the wish of Dostoevsky to be there when they find out what it is all about.  Each of these misfits has something that those of us who are whole do not.

There are the moneyed people that offer some of the light relief of the kind shown in The Eye of the Storm.  There are two old widows, Mrs Jolley, who becomes a housekeeper for Miss Hare, a truly disastrous mismatch, and Mrs Flack.  They both, we find, have their secrets, and they are the blackest possible version of Edna Everage.  They are one embodiment of anti-Semitism and hypocrisy, but the amount of bile invested in them by a man who carried a lot of bile may now seem heavy handed.

But Harry Rosetree, who runs the factory, and his wife Shirl are real characters in an appalling tragedy.  That is not their real name, but they are desperate to assimilate.  Their kids have learned to crave ice cream and potato chips and to shoot tomato sauce out of the bottle ‘even when the old black sauce was blocking the hole’.

So the admiration oozed out of Harry Rosetree, and for Mrs Rosetree too, who had learnt more than anyone.  With greater authority, Mrs Rosetree could say: That is not Australian.  She had a kind of gift for assimilation.  Better than anyone, she had learned the language.  She spoke it with a copper edge; the words fell out of her like old pennies.  Of course it was really Shirl Rosetree who owned the texture brick home, the stream-lined glass car, the advanced shrubs, the grandfather clock with the Westminster chimes, the walnut-veneer radiogram, the washing-machine and the mix-master.

That is the world that our Edna would inherit, but Harry and Shirl had changed more than their names.  They had gone the way of Moshe, the father of the Jew.  They had not done so for lucre, but might they end up like Judas?  How would the arrival of the Jew sit with the conscience of Harry Rosetree?

The climax of this grand opera comes at the time of Passover and Easter at the end of the war.

When the white man’s war ended, several of the whites bought Dubbo drinks to celebrate the peace, and together they spewed up in the streets, out of stomachs that were, for the occasion, of the same colour.  At Rosetree’s factory, though, where he began to work shortly after, Dubbo was always the abo.  Nor would he have wished it otherwise, for that way he could travel quicker, deeper, into the hunting grounds of his imagination.

The white men had never appeared pursier, hairier, or glassier, or so confidently superior as they became at the excuse of the peace.  As they sat at their benches at Rosetree’s, or went up and down between the machines, they threatened to burst right out of their singlets, and assault a far too passive future.  Not to say the suspected envoys of another world.

There was a bloke, it was learnt, at one of the drills down the lower end, some kind of bloody foreigner.  Whom the abo could watch with interest.  But the man seldom raised his eyes.  And the abo did not expect.

Until certain signs were exchanged, without gesture or direct glance.  How they began to communicate, the blackfellow could not have explained.  But a state of trust became established by subtler than any human means, so that he resented it when the Jew finally addressed him in the washroom, as if their code of silence might thus have been compromised.  Later, he realised, he was comforted to know that the Chariot did exist outside the prophet’s vision and his own mind.

It must have taken enormous courage for Patrick White to take on a story about a German Jew who lives most of his life in Germany, where a lot of this book is set, and a half-caste blackfella who is abandoned to an underworld that the author could never have experienced.  It is not hard to imagine a lesser writer coming a big gutser on such an undertaking.  What we get instead is a triumph of the imagination.

I do not want to reveal the end, which is shocking more ways than one, but this is how our four riders finally come together near the end of novel.

Then Dubbo looked inside, and saw as well as remembered that this was the shed in which lived Mrs Godbold, whom he had at first encountered at Mrs Khalil’s, and who had bent down and wiped his mouth as nobody had ever done.  Consequently, as she had already testified her love, it did not surprise him now to find the same woman caring for the Jew.  There in the bosom of her light the latter lay, amongst the heaps of sleeping children, and the drowsy ones, who still clung to whatever was upright, watching what had never happened before.  And the fox-coloured woman from Xanadu lay across the Jew’s feet, warming them by methods which her instincts taught her.

As Dubbo watched, his picture nagged at him, increasing in miraculous detail, as he had always hoped, and known it must.  In fact, the Jew was protesting at something – it could have been the weight of the bedclothes – and the women were preparing to raise him up.  The solid white woman had supported him against her breasts, and the young girl her daughter, of such a delicate greenish white, had bent to take part, with the result that some of her hair had been paddling in the Jew’s cheek, and the young fellow, his back moulded by the strain, was raising the body of the sick man, most by his own strength, from out of the sheets, higher on the stacked pillows.

The act itself was insignificant, but became, as the watcher saw it, the supreme act of love.

So, in his mind, he loaded with panegyric blue the tree from which the women, and the young man His disciple, were lowering their Lord.  And the flowers of the tree lay at its roots in pools of deepening blue.  And the blue was reflected in the skins of the women and the young girl.  As they lowered their Lord with that utmost breathless love, the first Mary received him with her whitest linen, and the second Mary, who had appointed herself the guardian of his feet, kissed the bones which were showing through the cold, yellow skin.

Dubbo, taking part at the window, did not think he could survive this Deposition, which, finally, he had conceived.  There he stood, sweating, and at last threatened with coughing.  So he went away as he had come.  He would have been discovered if he had stayed, and could not have explained his vision, any more than declared his secret love.

Alf Dubbo had never seen The Deposition by Pontormo at the Santa Felicita in Florence, but he may have seen a picture of it on one of his trips to the public library to investigate whitefella art.  He would surely have marvelled wide-eyed at the softness of the Mediterranean pastel colours, so unlike his own flash dabbings, and the fluid innocence and majesty of the scene.  What was it about Boyd and White that led them to express their compassion for our outcasts in the colour blue at about the same time in our drab national journey?

This is writing of sacramental and humbling power – like the paintings of Boyd.  These works of art are acts of both courage and faith, and they remind us that above the tawdry records of the world, there is the insight into our own humanity that we get from our great artists like Arthur Boyd and Patrick White, who teach us that art is the lyrical reflection of the human condition.