Patrick White and literary criticism

by
June 1990, no. 121

Patrick White and literary criticism

by
June 1990, no. 121

What we know and how we think and feel are socially and thus historically conditioned. But it can also be geographically conditioned. ‘Australia’, as Mrs Golson remarks in The Twyborn Affair, ‘may not be for everyone ... For some it is their fate, however.’ Our subject is Patrick White and criticism of his work in Australia and my argument is that ours is a culture in general, and a literary culture in particular, with an indifference to and perhaps fear of hermeneutics, which George Steiner glosses as some ‘essential answerability’ implicit in the act of reading over and above understanding or – Leavis preserve us! – evaluation.

First of all, I want to say something about the kind of reading involved, then argue that this is the kind that White’s work demands and finally to suggest that it makes his work even more illuminating and significant. Let me begin with a quotation from Derrida:

There are thus two interpretations of interpretation, of structure, of sign, of play. The one seeks to decipher, dreams of deciphering a truth or an origin which escape play and the order of the sign, and which lives the necessity of interpretation as an exile. The other, which is no longer turned toward the origin, affirms play and tries to pass beyond man and humanism ...

For my part, although these two interpretations must acknowledge and accentuate their difference and define their irreducibility, I do not believe that today there is any question of choosing – in the first place because here we are in a region (let us say, provisionally, a region of historicity) where the category choice seems particularly trivial; and in the second because we must first try to conceive of the common ground, and the difference of this irreducible difference.

(‘Structure, Sign and Play’ in The Discourse of the Human Sciences)

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