Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

Family Affairs/National Fictions, and The Tree of Man

Manfred Mackenzie

Family Affairs/National Fictions, and The Tree of Man

Manfred Mackenzie

O mother thou or sister or my bride,
inevitable, whom this hour in me declares,
were thine of old such rhythmic pangs that bore
my shivering soul, wind-waif upon the shore
that is a wavering twilight, thence astray
beneath the empty plainness of the day?
me thy first want conceived to some dim end,
that my unwelcom'd love might henceward tend
to the dumb home that draws it in thy breast
and the veil'd couch of some divine incest,
where thou didst wait some hour of sharp delight
to wither up in splendour the stark night
and haggard shame that ceremented thy dearth,
with purest diamond-blaze, some overbirth
of the dark fire thy foresight did enmesh

C. J. Brennan, The Forest of Night (1898-1902)

I want to introduce this discussion by way of a brief reading of one of Hawthorne's earliest romances of the Puritan settlement of New England, "Alice Doane's Appeal" (1835).1 "Alice Doane's Appeal" begins with the discovery, in forest outside late seventeenth century Boston, of a corpse: out of jealousy, Hawthorne's hero, Leonard Doane, has murdered Walter Brome, the man he suspects of being the lover of his sister, Alice. It appears that "a flicker of incest" - sibling incest, that is - crosses "the face of honor"2 in this story: "The young man spoke of the closeness of the tie which united him and Alice, the consecrated fervour of their affection from childhood upwards, their sense of lonely sufficiency to each other, because they only of their race had escaped death in a night attack by Indians" (130). Indeed, since it happens that the murdered Walter Brome is also Leonard's "counterpart" (131), if not his unacknowledged "twin-brother" (136), "Alice Doane's Appeal" may be said to turn on the possibility of a double sibling incest.

If this plot seems complicated enough, it now thickens further. By a kind of uncanny Gothic contagion, it turns out that in murdering his putative brother, the latently incestuous hero is guilty of a further violation, namely parricide. In killing Walter Brome, it is as if he kills an incarnation of his (their?) father, who has been killed in the same encounter with Indians that has seen the beginnings of his (their?) incestuous feeling for Alice:

"Methought I stood a weeping infant by my father's hearth; by the cold and blood-stained hearth where he lay dead. I heard the childish wail of Alice, and my own cry arose with hers, as we beheld the features of our parent, fierce with the strife and distorted with pain, in which his spirit had passed away. As I gazed, a cold wind whistled by, and waved my father's hair. Immediately I stood again in the lonesome road, no more a sinless child, but a man of blood, whose tears were falling fast over the face of his dead enemy. But the delusion was not wholly gone; that face still wore a likeness of my father." (132-33)

Evidently an Oedipal situation grounds the story's sibling incest, and ultimately its fratricide. The joint heroes' lethal rivalry would seem to be the product at once of Oedipal aggression and of an incestuous return - "some unutterable crime, perpetrated, as he imagined, in madness or a dream" (133). Hawthorne's story represents, if not exactly a Freudian triangle ("Mommy-Daddy-me"), then a kind of double Freudian foursome according to which "genealogy" is as it were end-stopped within an endogamous relationship.

What of the cultural dimension of this family affair? We saw that we are to read Leonard and Alice Doane's "lonely sufficiency to each other" as arising out of an ambivalence fundamental to their settler culture: Leonard would seem incestuously bonded to his sister in part by way of consecrating ("the consecrated fervour of their affection") the wilderness in which he has settled, 3 and in part out of his European/Puritan's hostility towards it.4 But we have also seen that sibling incest here in some way rehearses an antecedent, Oedipal situation: Leonard Doane would sleep, not so much with a sister, rather with this sister qua absent mother, a mother for possession of whom he murders, not just a sexual rival, but the father who has founded his settler culture. (It is noticeable that Alice, though nominally a central character, is very much an abstraction in the story.) In other words, Hawthorne's latently incestuous fratricide cum parricide suggests the predicament of a "new world" vis-a-vis a parent metropolitan culture from which it at once separates and refuses to separate, whether out of hostility towards the Other or chronic nostalgia for the Same, or both. The murdered Walter Brome functions as a kind of Europeanized other to Hawthorne's hero: "His education, indeed, in the cities of the old world, and mine in this rude wilderness, had wrought a superficial difference" (131).

If I seem to overread "Alice Doane's Appeal," I should also say that Hawthorne himself wants to negotiate such a general meaning for the story, and that he regards its incest situation not only as a paradigm of American colonial culture, but also as something of an allegory of his own postcolonial moment. For he frames his family romance within a second, enveloping narrative, the story, as it were, of the story that is "Alice Doane's Appeal." He represents it as being the production of a narrator who is concerned with a crisis in contemporary American historiography - historiography that either ignores or glosses the tragic side of American founding history, and in particular the witchcraft trials of 1692 - and who would use it pedagogically, as a way of inculcating in his nineteenth century audience a sense of historical truth. In this way, Hawthorne inscribes the Doane affair within what might be called a National Symbolic: - to use the phrase of a recent Hawthorne critic, Lauren Berlant - "that order of discursive practices whose reign within a national space . . . transforms individuals into subjects of a collectively held history."5 To put it more accurately, while acknowledging the official historiography of his time, he sets over against it a Gothic "counter memory," a "counter national symbolic," or "critical nationalism."6 Another American instance of the incest configuration I have identified here is Melville's Pierre, Or, the Ambiguities (1852).7 Pierre Glendinning, the hero of this extraordinary novel, discovers that his late father, whom he has long revered as a model of virtue, had once fallen in love with a young refugee from Revolutionary France, only to abandon her together with a daughter born of the affair. Wanting to take his father's sins on himself, but certain also that his aristocratic mother will accept neither the scandal involving her late husband nor his illegitimate child, Pierre devises a quixotic scheme. He arranges to rescue his half-sister, Isabel, who is now a social outcast in a nearby village, pretends that he is secretly married to her, and moves to New York, where he attempts to earn his living as a writer. (The marriage would seem to be sexually consummated - 311) In a further complication, he and Isabel are joined in their Greenwich Village apartment by Pierre's former fiancee, Lucy Tartan.

As in "Alice Doane's Appeal," the sibling incest in Melville's novel arises out of a prior, Oedipal situation, in this case a wholly explicit one. In the absence of his father, it is said, Pierre might almost be his mother's lover (and vice versa). It turns out, moreover, that mother and son are alike "wont to call each other brother and sister" (25); they address each other as "sister Mary" and "brother Pierre" prior to the arrival on the scene of the latter's half-sister. No doubt Melville is parodying contemporary genteel romance in respect to this domestic fiction. All the same, his parody comes startlingly true in the action that follows: "This preamble," Melville writes, "seems not entirely unnecessary as usher of the strange conceit, that possibly the latent germ of Pierre's proposed extraordinary mode of executing his proposed extraordinary resolve - namely, the nominal conversion of his sister into a wife - might have been found in the previous conversational conversion of a mother into a sister; for hereby he had habituated his voice and manner to a certain fictitiousness in one of the closest domestic relations of life" (208). In other words, in cohabiting with his half-sister, Pierre at once breaks out of an Oedipal circuit and consents to being reenveloped by it.

From the first, determined at all hazards to hold his father's fair fame inviolate from any thing he should do in reference to protecting Isabel, and extending to her a brother's utmost devotedness and love; and equally determined not to shake his mother's lasting peace by any useless exposure of unwelcome facts; and yet vowed in his deepest soul some way to embrace Isabel before the world, and yield to her his constant consolation and companionship; and finding no possible mode of unitedly compassing all these ends, without a most singular act of pious imposture, which he thought all heaven would justuify in him, since he himself was to be the grand self-renouncing victim; therefore, this was his settled and immovable purpose now; namely: to assume before the world, that by secret rites, Pierre Glendinning was already become the husband of Isabel Banford - an assumption which would entirely warrant his dwelling in her continual company, and upon equal terms, taking her wherever the world admitted him; and at the same time foreclose all sinister inquisitions bearing upon his deceased parents' memory, or in any way affecting his mother's lasting peace, as indissolubly linked with that. (203-04)

To ask now the question we asked of Hawthorne's story, what of Pierre, Or, the Ambiguities' cultural dimension? Like Hawthorne before him, Melville simultaneously inscribes his hero's story within an official National Symbolic and imagines a "counter memory" or "counter national symbolic." On the one hand, Pierre is the scion of a family that, while organized on European blood principles, is nevertheless distinctively American: "consider those most ancient and magnificent Dutch manors at the North . . . Some of those manors are two centuries old; and their present patrons or lords will show you stakes and stones on their estates put there - the stones at least - before Nell Gwynne the Duke-mother was born, and genealogies which, like their own river, Hudson, flow somewhat farther and straighter than the Serpentine brooklet in Hyde Park" (31). Pierre himself might be "Young America in Literature" (the title of ch. 18), an author who writes his post-colonial American society, writes an American "nation-ness." At the same time, however, it is clear that the novel's problem of endogamy indicates a problem of a collective or national viability. "With no chartered aristocracy," Melville writes, "and no law of entail, how can any family in America imposingly perpetuate itself?" (29) How indeed can the America allegorized by the Pierre-Isabel-Lucy menage imposingly perpetuate itself? Is America possible?

As I read it, Pierre ultimately represents the same cultural problem as Hawthorne's story, namely a problem of confusion between Same and Other, Old and New Worlds. For Melville, as for his contemporaries, Emerson and Thoreau, America's peculiar title to national identity rests upon "Nature": post-Revolutionary, postcolonial America is "nature's nation."8 "The Glendinning deeds," he writes, "by which their estate had been so long held, bore the ciphers of three Indian kings, the aboriginal and only conveyors of those noble woods and plains" (26). Or as he puts it in his epigraph, in which he dedicates his book to Mt. Greylock, the mountain dominating his Berkshire neighbourhood, "Nevertheless, forasmuch as I, dwelling with my royal neighbours, the Maples and the Beeches, in the amphitheatre over which his central majesty presides, have received his most beauteous and unstinted fertilizations, it is but meet, that I here devoutly Kneel, and render up my gratitude, whether, thereto, The Most Excellent Purple Majesty of Greylock benignantly incline his hoary crown or no." At this very moment of celebrating an American natural sublime, however, Melville also seems to know a quite contrary cultural impulse. In the figure of Isabel, at least, the dark heroine of the piece, he not only feminizes his hitherto masculinist world, he turns nostalgically towards "the monarchical world" (29) of Europe.9 For Pierre then to cohabit with both Lucy Tartan and his European half-sister - a menage "Oedipally" rehearsing the earlier affair involving his parents and Isabel's French born mother (11) - is to fall into a kind of postcolonial neocolonial confusion. And the sure sign of this is a rivalry or dedoublement of the same kind that we find in Hawthorne's story. Over and against Pierre Glendinning there abruptly appears a "cousin" or "soul alien" (326) or, Glen Stanly, the Walter Brome of this narrative. No sooner does Pierre - "young America in literature" - establish his menage a trois, than his reactionary, Europeanized (274) double lays claim to Lucy. Moreover, Glen Stanly does this in the company of Lucy's brother who, like Pierre himself, is intent on avenging his sister's honour. In other words, one endogamous situation is now duplicated by another such situation, and duplicated in such a way as to make it impossible to differentiate that which is "American" in the novel from that which is of "the monarchical world."

In their concern with sibling cum parent-child incest, the nineteenth century American fictions I have mentioned represent - one supposes for the first time - a cultural condition that has since become familiar to us within the postcolonial world.10 More to the point, they illuminate our own settler culture fictions, and one could instance here a number of novels by Christina Stead and Patrick White, all of which turn on incest situations (Seven Poor Men of Sydney, The Man Who Loved Children, Cotters' England, and The Tree of Man and The Eye of the Storm ). To turn, then, to Patrick White, and to The Tree of Man in particular.11

The presence of an incest configuration in White has of course been recognized for some time. In his challenging study, Patrick White: Fiction and the Unconscious, David Tacey has argued that White's fiction repeatedly performs an incestuous return to a "mother archetype" - in Christopher Brennan's phrase - "divine incest." So much is it taken up with archetypal entrancement that the incest "mythologem" in it exerts no purchase on either cultural or social reality: "Because of the psychological nature of the Sydney/outback duality," Tacey says of Voss, "we must not view the huddlers as an accurate portrayal of Australian society in the 1840s. White is primarily concerned with his own internal conflict, and is dealing with historical issues only insofar as these provide a context for his psychological drama."12 If and when White tries to imagine an "outside" to the mother archetype, he calls it "Nature, the maternal earth" (4). But even this possibility of symbolic union with nature - "the lap of the land" in The Tree of Man - is ultimately no more than incestuous return in disguise, a translation made necessary whenever its tabooed character is suspected.13 From our point of view, however, it is fiction like that of Hawthorne and Melville, and not a Jungian model, that best illuminates White's novels. It serves to alert us as to what might otherwise seem incidental in them, or at most secondary: an element of sibling incest. I am thinking in particular of a late scene in The Tree of Man between Ray and Thelma Parker, in which Ray Parker enquires of his sister about her husband, the solicitor Dudley Forsdyke. "Is he breakable?" Ray asks. Failing to elicit a reply, he continues: "I could get to know you, Thel, sitting in this room" (388). There then follows a moment during which both siblings appear to collude in some unidentified "crime" - "some crime I have forgotten" (389):

So they stood there hating, without being able to put a finger on the reason.

Then in the silent room, in which they had exchanged souls, they began also to be moved by each other. There are moments when this thick and repulsive man starts to tremble, the woman noticed; would he be still if I kissed him, in spite of the smell of smoke and drink, his teeth are brown, but kissed him deeply, as I have been afraid to kiss someone, or would he add this secret to others that he has got by heart? (388-89).

Is it not that a flicker of sibling incest crosses White's narrative in this scene? The Parker brother all but acknowledges as much. In an earlier, and at the time puzzling, episode, he has "bought her silk stockings": "He opened the door and threw them across the carpet, so that they lay there contorted, inseparable from the feelings she had for Ray" (271). And Thelma Parker reciprocates, at least in impulse. Shortly afterwards, she will even see herself in fantasy as her brother's wife: "How she would have whirled, herself, with gestures of slow ice, protecting herself from the groom!" (398)

This scene is a major instance of endogamy in White's fiction, the other important instance being the Hunter children's incest in The Eye of the Storm. It occurs, moreover, as a component of a complex emotional circuit obtaining within the Parker family. It constitutes a latently incestuous parent-child situation in new form. As White represents it, Amy Parker has from the beginning loved her son Ray with a "devouring" and "greedy" love (113, 126). At the same time, she has displaced her sexuality from her husband into a fantasy life centred on the local property known as Glastonbury, and in particular on the socialite Madeleine, a fantasy life into which she has early on inducted both Ray and Thelma (135-36). And now the guiltily Oedipal Ray is moved sexually by his sister inasmuch as the latter, who has by this time actually become an acquaintance of Madeleine, seems to reproduce his mother's covert life. On her side, meanwhile, Thelma experiences an uprush of sexual interest in Ray inasmuch as he might now be the Oedipal lover for whose love she herself qua Amy cannot help being "greedy" (126). (One notices that Ray has come physically to resemble the commercial traveller Leo, whom Amy takes as a lover.)

How to think this sibling cum Oedipal incest configuration in cultural terms? As I've said, Patrick White: Fiction and the Unconscious finds only psychopathology in The Tree of Man. With Hawthorne and Melville in mind, however, one can say that the novel's incest situation picks up the familiar problem of Europe in relation to its Other. Nominally, of course, The Tree of Man is a settler culture fiction. In the history of the Parker family, White symbolically rehearses the European settlement of Australia, and indeed turn-of-the-century Australian nationalism: "A cart drove between the two big stringybarks and stopped. These were the dominant trees in that part of the bush, rising above the involved scrub with the simplicity of true grandeur. So the cart stopped, grazing the hairy side of a tree, and the horse, shaggy and stolid as a tree, sighed and took root," . . . (3). But where one might expect it to inscribe an Australian "nationness," one has instead "counter national symbolic." One finds, then, not some national outcome, but endogamy, end-stopped genealogy, a kind of postcolonial/neocolonial confusion. One finds incestuous return, although of a different kind from that postulated in Patrick White: Fiction and the Unconscious. It is neither possible here, nor perhaps necessary, to dwell on The Tree of Man as a fiction of settlement. But it is necessary to consider the character of the "incestuous return" that it performs. As I say, the guilt feeling between Ray and Thelma Parker simultaneously refers to, and is grounded in, an antecedent Oedipal circuit. But it is noticeable that, common to both sibling and parent-child relations, there is a further party. In the "flicker of incest" to which I have referred, Ray Parker "could get to know" not only Thelma, but also the Amy in the adult Thelma. More than this, Ray knows the socialite Madeleine within the Amy within his sister. It is to the only apparently marginal Madeleine that The Tree of Man can be said to return: a character who, while seeming merely a figment of Amy Parker's fantasy, yet possesses her from the outset, and who thereby posesses both Ray and Thelma as well (135-36).

If all emotional roads in The Tree of Man would seem to lead us towards Madeleine, Madeleine in turn leads to the country property the novel calls Glastonbury. And Glastonbury is as much a set of cultural and social values as a destination. It is to The Tree of Man what Runnymede station is to Furphy's Such is Life: a locus of hierarchical principle. It represents the negative of the novel's theme of settlement, an "English title" (176).

So she [Amy Parker] came to Armstrong's gateway, which had cost a great deal of money and showed it, in volumes of iron and brick, and on each pillar of red brick the name was printed in white flints. Armstrong's property had been called Glastonbury, since a gentleman of education, after a few drinks, said it was not unlike the place of that name, of which nobody else had heard, in the old country. So Mr. Armstrong was pleased. He spoke it softly to himself, and looked it up in a book, and his place became Glastonbury. (159)

As the creature of Glastonbury, then, Madeleine is a signifier for a powerful reactionary impulse within the novel, a cultural desire that quite gives the lie to its "nationalist" project. As White makes clear during her last appearance, Madeleine has been infected with a "terrible nostalgia for lost possibilities" (450), lost and ever receding European possibilities:

Between bites, for which they bared their teeth artistically, the two visitors had begun to discuss Mabel [Armstrong], who was married to some sort of lord. Mabel, the old woman [Amy] had begun to gather, was poor in spite of motorcars.

"Because he treats her to perfect hell."

"But it is a lovely place," suggested Mrs Forsdyke cautiously.

Not knowing Mabel, her shots were timid, even perilous, but she loved to play the anxious game.

"Oh, the place," said Mrs Fisher [Madeleine]. "We drove down to see them last time we were over. Poor Mabel would have been hurt. The place is - well, what would you expect. All oak and staircases. If you like oak."

Mrs Forsdyke, who had thought she did, made a suitably dismal noise.

"But now they are at Antibes," she said.

In fact, she had read.

"At Antibes," Mrs Fisher intoned. "At the Pigeon Bleu. Oh yes, poor Mabel has written, one of her famous letters. They read like a bus timetable. They are sweet. Anyway, there the poor things are. At the Pigeon Bleu," she screamed. "It is madness. In winter the Pigeon Bleu is divine. So primitive. But in summer, as we all know, it stinks." (445-46)

If this is so, then for Stan Parker to rescue Madeleine from within the burning Glastonbury is symbolically to confound his own cultural meaning. It is to pursue what H. H. Richardson calls "the way home,"14 to regress nostalgically to an imperial destination, not as David Tacey says, to some psychic archetype in the guise of "the lap of the land." Ultimately the eroticism of White's hero's encounter is allegorical of a settler culture, as it consents - "the saviour or sacrifice, it was not clear which" (180) - to its own re-envelopment by its parent or source culture:

All that he had never done, all that he had never seen, apeared to be contained in this house, and it was opening to him. Till his head began to reel with fiery splendour of its own, and he was prepared to accept the invitation, and follow the passages of the house, or fire, or any possible conclusion. Lamplight made him bigger than he was. . . . All things in the house were eternal on that night. . . . Time was becalmed in the passages. . . . He found the staircase, stumbled, mounted, paying the banister out through his burning hand, feeling his swift shirt sail against his ribs as he mounted on a mission of some mystery into the pure air of the upper rooms. (176-80)15

Macquarie University


1 Hawthorne, Selected Tales and Sketches, ed. Hyatt H. Waggoner, (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970) 126-39.

2 I take this phrase from Edwin Honig, Calderon and the Seizures of Honor, ch. 7, "Flickers on the Face of Honor" (Cambridge, Mass.: 1972) 110-57.

3 Leonard and Alice Doane's relationship anticipates Arthur Dimmesdale's and Hester Prynne's adultery in The Scarlet Letter, which is said by Hawthorne to have "a consecration of its own."

4 See Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, rev. edn. (New Haven and London: 1979) 1-43.

5 Lauren Berlant, The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991) 20.

6 Berlant, 6, 34, 57-8.

7 H. Melville, Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852; New York: Signet, 1979). All references are to this edition.

8 See Perry Miller, The Errrand into the Wilderness, ch. 9, "Nature and the National Ego", 204-16. Unlike Hawthorne and Melville, Miller conceives of pre-colonial America as terra nullius. As he says of Errand, it consists of "a rank of spotlights on the massive narrative of the movement of Eurpoean culture into the vacant wilderness of America" (ch.7, my emphasis).

9 Hawthorne's version of Isabel Banford is The Blithedale Romance's sibylline Priscilla. See my article "The Blithedale Romance: A Post-Colonial Reading," forthcoming in UTQ.

10 On sibling incest in Latin American fiction, see Doris Sommer, "Irresistible Romance," in Nation and Narration ("A family Affair"), ed. Homi K. Bhaba, 85-90.

11 Patrick White, The Tree of Man (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1956). All references are to this edition.

12 David Tacey, Patrick White: Fiction and the Unconscious (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1988) 81.

13 For Tacey, the element of sibling incest is no more than a derivative of the incestuous return; and while noticing its presence in The Living and the Dead (Patrick White, 15), he quite overlooks it in The Tree of Man, as well, curiously, as in The Eye of the Storm .

14 Henry Handel Richardson, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, vol. 2. See also my article, "The Way Home," Span, 28 (April, 1989) 63-84.

15 Two further scenes involving Madeleine are worth noting. In the first of these, Stan Parker chances to return to Glastonbury, which has been partly rebuilt after the fire from which he has rescued her. Recalling "the moment on the stairs," Stan renews in fantasy his earlier "unfaithfulness to his wife" (221): as we might say, The Tree of Man continues on its "incestuous return," a return considered always in its problematic cultural dimension. In the second scene, Amy and Ray Parker meet at the same abandoned site. And yet again a flicker of incest - "So she kissed him as she had not kissed yet, and trembled for an answer on the lips of this young man, who was only incidentally her son" (364) - bespeaks a complicity in "crime," in self-destructive immolation to nostalgia, always a more obscure nostalgia for ever more receding European possibilities.

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