I picked up a copy of The Vivisector at St Pancras last month, more on a whim than out of any great desire to get lost in the well of Patrick White’s angst-ridden consciousness. This is not to criticize White’s impalpable worlds, but to acknowledge that to enter is to accept a contract, a contract to engage with the profound depths of what it means to be human, really. And once there, there is no opportunity to leave.
The Vivisector may not be a book that is objectively great, and despite the sophistication of the language, in many ways it is rambling, in places obscure, its protagonist memorable but not likeable, he is eccentric and mostly repulsive. Hurtle Duffield might be a great and recognized painter, but like kindred spirit Kathy Volkov’s friend, too afraid to fetch her ball from Hurtle’s front yard, I too would pick up the pace or cross to the other side to avoid Hurtle as he walks down the street. He smells, has the stains of yesterday’s, even last week’s dinner on his shirt, his flies are undone, his shoes have holes, his teeth going grey. But he is also brilliant, a gifted artist whose extraordinary talent necessitates a sacrifice of everything else in his life to the imperative to paint. He may not be so likeable, but White doesn’t ask us to like him, he asks us to understand him and empathize with him, and entangled with a deep ambivalence, to revere him.
As much as The Vivesector is about Hurtle Duffield, it is also not about him, but rather, it is an intense and powerful representation of the anguish and ecstasy of the process of painting, and even beyond that, creating. Although it is Hurtle’s calling in life to translate the world, translate himself into drawings, sketches and huge slathers of paint, it is his process of transformation and creative materialization of that transformation that is made magical, mystical and brutally painful through White’s extraordinary command of language, of writing, and his laser-like insight into what we all know, but have no means to express. I would even go so far as to say that White is not interested in images, in the same way that a painter loses sight of himself and his own work in the finished product. We do get colorful descriptions of Hurtle’s paintings, but they are not why we read The Vivesector. In fact, what I see on Hurtle’s canvases, I don’t particularly want to look at. As a reflection of this, for a painter, it is so mesmerizing to watch Hurtle as he navigates the world through his other senses, touching and smelling the paintings on one of his first visits to what will become his adopted family home, up close, in a gesture of sensuousness than could never be had by the eye. And as the book draws to a close, on the night before his major retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Hurtle goes for a private viewing with the exhibition’s curator. At what he knows will be his last opportunity to be with the paintings before they are “attacked” or bought by the pariahs who “know nothing about painting,” Hurtle touches their surfaces. As though in the dense and hardened movement of paint he will feel the vibrations of his own soul, the tremors of his own emotions, he finds “some consolation to be able to touch the surfaces of paint and take refuge from the immodesty of words.” It is through touch that Hurtle is stripped naked, his thoughts and emotions exposed.
Even the relationships he has, the relationships that feed his creativity, are physical and sensuous, somewhere beyond language and the agony of vision. Perhaps the most troubling relationship of his long life is the one he has with the young pianist, Kathy Volkov, and as the two unlikely lovers become embroiled in each others’ brilliance, they pursue their spiritual connection through “implication and silence.” Despite his own unkempt physical appearance, like his relationship to painting, Hurtle's way of being in the world, with others, is sheer and corporeal. Even his poverty-stricken birth mother is portrayed with such physicality: her hands swollen, red, cracked, chaffing, bilious from a life spent washing other people’s laundry.
Hurtle destroys the world he touches, and especially the women, he “vivisects.” He ruthlessly tears them apart to release the blood that will become the inspiration and material of his art. We never see what it is that these women would like about him, but perhaps they do not like him. Perhaps he draws them, addictively, uncontrollably mastering their desire for the dangerous, life on the edge. That said, there is also something special about these women, about Nance Lightfoot, Hero Pavloussi, Boo Hollingbroke, even his step-sister Rhoda, because their sacrifice to the power of the imperative that pulls Hurtle without choice to paint is conscious. They all know what they are doing, and they do it with grace and unusual self-possession. The ex-prostitute Nance Lightfoot is the most well-drawn and compassionate of the women in his life, even though she is perhaps on the surface, the one with which he does not belong. Perhaps it is because she enables the transition to his life as a master painter she still has the space to be independent of him.
For me, the overwhelming seduction of The Vivesector lies in the portrayal of the imperative to paint. I cannot remember having read so convincing a description of the disappearance from life as the artist enters into the mysterious, inexplicable, world of the unconscious as he prepares to paint. And when Hurtle gets to that place, we become powerless over the temptation to fall into it with him. This immersion into an other world of creativity where what happens is beyond human control is the experience of all great artists, great not because of what they produce, but because they have the courage to go to that place. So as deft as this character portrayal is, in the end, Hurtle's physical repulsion is not the point, but rather, where he is going, how he gets there and our inability to follow him, is the desire of this book.