R.M.I.T. University - Faculty Gallery - 2002

University of Melbourne - Baillieu Library - 2004


The Myth of Voss




Patrick White had described the genesis of Voss in the disillusionments that came of
'traipsing around the Egyptian deserts during the Second World War'. He saw Voss as embodying
a critique of those colonising instincts, which knew no boundaries; 'what had at first seemed a
brilliant, intellectual, highly desirable existence but eventually became distressingly pointless and
parasitic'. Voss was first published in 1957, White was subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize in
Literature and to this day he remains the only Australian to have been awarded the prize.

Gary Willis confidently re-interprets the spiritualised hero of Patrick White's novel, in the vigorous style of the Antipodean painter's of White's generation; plein air landscape , expressionism, surrealism.
Robert Nelson - The Age - 2004
City Search.com.au - Melbourne - Visual arts - Our Pick √ - Aug 2004

Technically, White’s Voss is not a myth, but a novel. A myth, begins as a traditional story with an
uncanny resonance and develops as a consequence of the basic tale being retold. In 1988 The
Australian Opera performed Richard Meale’s Voss with a libretto by David Malouf. David Tacey
published his Jungian analysis of White’s novel in the seminal essay The Demonic Interior in Edge
of the Sacred (Melbourne, 1995). Roslynn Haynes published her critical analysis of The Australian
Desert in Literature, Art and Film entitled Seeking the Centre, with a central chapter, Transforming
Myths, devoted to the myth of Voss (Sydney, 1998). What we recognise here is the hermeneutic
reprocessing that signals a developing mythology.
Like a luminous dream which bubbles up from the subconscious, the myth contains a
supreme truth more profound than reality, a truth capable of maintaining its veracity across
time. Mircea Elaide’s essay Toward a Definition of Myth (Chicago 1993) suggests the myth
involves the supernatural embodiment of natural phenomena and popular ideas, but unlike
fiction, fairytale or fable, the myth is an allegory which contains sacred knowledge about the
origins of our condition which concerns the listener directly. Its knowledge is not merely semantic
but also mantic; that is divined through ritual performance. To re-enact a myth, is to remember
the hero’s sacrifice and in doing so gain magical power over the source of the subject of the
myth. Through mantic re-enactment its ontology is entrusted back into the collective unconscious.
When boiled down to bare bones, the myth of Voss is fundamentally different to other explorer
tales. Voss is a myth of sacrifice, in which the colonizing ego is offered up to the law of the
unconscious, embodied in the indigenous notions of Dreamtime.
I will cross this country from one side to the other, I know it with my heart, it is mine
by right of vision, declares Johan Ulrich Voss in the opening scene of David Malouf’s libretto.
What transpires is a slow strangulation of the explorer’s hubris, as the law of the land gradually
grinds the entire expedition to dust. Realizing they are beyond the point-of-no-return, his party
mutiny when they understand Voss has no intention of turning back but rather intends a sacrifice.
To quote from White’s novel:
…in the presence of the whole congregation the old black fellow, a guardian or familiar,
placed a whole witchetty grub into the white man’s mouth, the solemnity of the act
was immense… the white man… mumbled the white grub around his tongue … before
attempting to swallow it, at once struggling with the little white wafers of his boyhood
which absorbed the unworthiness in his hot mouth and would not go down…
For his transgressions against the law, Voss is subjected to the traditional punishment;
the ritual spearing of the legs. The primacy of will endemic to the European enlightenment
amounts to an irredeemable crime against the constitution of the unconscious. The elders
eventually pass the responsibility of Voss’ beheading to his Aboriginal guide, Jackie.
‘Tell your people…blackfellow white man friend together’. ‘Friend?’ asked Jackie …
his throat full of knots, ‘Blackfella dead by white man’. The blood of Voss soaks into
the dust. ‘White maggots’, called out one blackfellow who was a poet, every body
laughed. …. They then began singing in soft reverential tones, for it was still the season
of the Rainbow Serpent, … ‘White maggots drying up … White maggots drying up’.
Voss, the opera, focuses on the traditional subject of opera: love, both romantic and
spiritual. In spite of them only meeting three times, the relationship between Johan Ulrich Voss
and Laura Trevelyan is central to the novel and also to the operatic account of its myth. Laura,
like Voss, is another prickly intellectual outsider within the materialism of the colonial community
in which she has found herself. Voss’s anti-heroic struggle in face of the relentless and merciless
landscape is echoed in Laura’s daily coping with the minutiae of domestic detail. As the narrative
develops Voss and Laura counterpoint gender responses to this mythic journey into the centre of
their own being. Although the opera and the novel share the theme of annihilation of the will
- Meale’s opera foregrounds the triumph of transcendental love, as the ego is broken, giving rise
to a mystic union, ... eventually exhausted by celestial visions of cascading yellow stars she
understood ...
Tacey’s Jungian analysis of White’s novel is a little more circumspect. Ultimately, he sees
White’s anti-hero as being under a demonic illusion, which betrays a national blindness and
catches Voss in a self-destructive act of ritual suicide as a consequence of his inability to embrace
the healing principle of feminine spirituality. The myth of Voss, argues Tacey, is in accord with
the darker side of the Australian psyche, that is the nihilistic impulse to abandon the inauthentic
colonizing will and become one with the healing properties of the landscape and the eternal
feminine. That is, an impulse traditionally at play within the bonds of the mateship and is a
repressive instinct, which transforms the redemptive power of the feminine into the all-devouring
demonic anima, who delights in enticing men to their ruin. In this context Laura becomes what
Jung refers to as the black lady. A siren whose only interest is to seduce Voss away from life with
the promise of a heroic unity in death, leading him toward the grim reality of becoming a human
sacrifice to the bloodthirsty earth.
In post-colonial terms, Roslynn Haynes reminds us that Voss plays out all the European
attitudes to the land: The presumption of superiority and the implicit right to conquest and
domination, whether scientific, geographic or outright ownership. Haynes’ metaphor is, the
conquest of the virgin. She writes: he entered in advance, that vast expectant country, whether
stone deserts, veiled mountains or voluptuous, fleshy forests, they were his. But first his soul
must experience, as if by some spiritual ‘droit de seigneur’, the excruciating passage into its
interior. For Haynes, Voss ultimately subverts colonial notions of mapping and possession of
territories becoming - a precursor to the revisionist and particularly feminist geographies which
contest the authority of the surveyor’s grid as the arbiter of title. Voss, she notes, respects the
authority of his two black guides… very particular sound their bare feet made upon the earth
which, to the German’s ears at once, established their ownership.
Whichever way you read it the myth of Voss maintains a resonance, which centres on
a critique of the colonizing instinct. In this regard Voss stands as a marker of our own culpability,
pinpointing what David Tacey calls the defining trope of the Australian psyche - colonial guilt. In
ritually replaying the presumptions of subjugation and marking out our patterns of territorial
abuse Voss opens up the unmarked territories of our own unconscious along with the sacred
business of indigenous authority. What is contained in the myth of Voss is ultimately whitefella
Sorry Business with Voss becoming an antipodean scapegoat, sent out into the desert as a
sacrificial offering, marked for death by landscape.                               - Gary Willis - Melb. 2004