Patrick White: The Politics of Modernism


  • Michael Wilding


There is no doubt about the achievement of Patrick White (1912-90). The substantial corpus of books is there-twelve novels, three collections of stories, the plays, the autobiography. He is the one Australian writer who is known inte~nationally. But though he is well-known, when we come to ask what he is known for, it is not so easy to get a succinct answer. What are his novels about? Are they about anything other than themselves? To define what White is we have to begin by defining what he is not; and this leads immediately into the nature of modernism. For White is the great Australian modernist. And modernism as an artistic movement is very much a system of exclusions. Much of the impulse of modernism was a denial of preceding traditions and a refusal of certain possibilities of continuity. The way in which modernism most immediately proclaimed itself was in its refusal of what had been the dominant nineteenth century mode of realism. If modernism was to be new, then it had to deny the existing, make it seem old and outdated. So that concern with the knowable, with recognizable psychological motivation, with the inventory of named objects, with causality and morality, is abandoned.