Postcolonial Fictions | Span | Reading Room | What'sNew | CRCC
Journal of the South Pacific
Association for Commonwealth
Literature and Language Studies
Number 36 (1993)
Edited by Michèle Drouart
" The Mighty Pipe Smoking Me ": Imposture in Such is LifeIn a paper of 1986, "New Concepts of Person and Place in The Twyborn Affair and A Bend in the River," Helen Tiffin argued that Patrick White and V. S. Naipaul had recently moved from a concern with the possibility of indigenization towards an acceptance of the cultural confusion characterizing the postcolonial world in which they write.1 They accept "hybridity" or "syncreticity," as the happily syncretized authors of The Empire Writes Back call it.2 One sign of this acceptance in The Twyborn Affair in particular is the fate of Eudoxia/Eddie/Eadith, White's androgynous hero/ine and a sexual allegory, really, of this hybridization: while Eudoxia/Eddie/Eadith eventually dies during an air raid on London, this happens just as he/she is about to be reunited with his/her similarly androgynous mother, who has recognized him/her at last as the Twyborn son/daughter he/she is and has been.
"New Concepts of Person and Place" is a notable paper. What interests me most here, however, is a further point it makes regarding The Twyborn Affair, namely that White connects his novel's fragmented cultural backdrop (France, Australia, and London) and its quasi-allegory of androgyny by way of alluding to or rehearsing the Tichborne case of the 1870s (an Australian case of impersonation in order to gain an English inheritance, and so celebrated, I noticed recently, as to have gained a place among Leopold Bloom's thoughts in Ulysses). For it is as if one were reading two somewhat distinct narratives in The Twyborn Affair (as in The Solid Mandala). The one presents a confusion as between old and new world cultures that makes itself felt by way of a hero/ine who is given to sexual impersonation ("permutations"). In the other, this hero/ine's sexual impersonation strikes us in its turn as synecdochic of a difficult old/new world relationship. And the story of the Tichborne claimant is the paradigm in which they find a common term, a paradigm - for White, evidently - of postcolonial as well as colonial Australian life.
Interestingly, too, Helen makes reference in her paper to Brian Elliott's book on Marcus Clarke.3 And this further opens up the idea of impersonation or imposture broached in The Twyborn Affair; it reminds us that For the Term of His Natural Life had also used the case of the Tichborne claimant in its narrative of John Rex, alias Lionel Crofton alias John Carr. But of course Clarke's John Rex is a natural half-brother to his hero Richard Devine. Is it not then the case that Richard Devine is also an impersonator, a higher confidence man, if one likes? After all, he goes under the assumed name of Rufus Dawes for most of the novel.
The fact is that For the Term of His Natural Life systematically represents colonial Australian society in terms of impersonation or imposture. In the "carceral archipelago" that is its Australia, a displaced European order gives rise to two opposed cultural impulses: on the one hand a need for indigenization, the need implied by Rufus Dawes" immolation of himself to the place-that-is Australia; and on the other, a chronic nostalgia for "Home" as caught up in John Rex's several escapes. These alternative impulses are intimately related, but always within an informal dedoublement according to which Clarke's heroes serve - simply by coexisting - to show one another up as false and falsifying (a kind of neo-indigene, another Tichborne claimant). For Clarke, it is as if no European value can be identical with itself in Australia, the Same, but must always be liable to its Other - to being "othered" from itself.
For the Term of His Natural Life sets out, I believe, something of an an agenda for Australian writing, one that states that identity in Australia is fundamentally controversial as a result of an old/new double bind, and is even a matter of imposture; it may even be that The Twyborn Affair rehearses Clarke's novel for our own postcolonial moment, not just the historical Tichborne case itself. And certainly - to come now to Furphy - Such is Life can be said to be cultural business arising. For Furphy foregrounds the idea of imposture to a degree that surpasses even Clarke. His persona, Tom Collins, actually draws on a figure of popular culture, who "always managed to vanish before his destroyer, as he was imaginary."4 Tom we last see with a huge, raconteur's meerschaum, "such a pipe as no other Australian bushman ever owned," and he also appears with it when "confused identity seem[s] to be in the air." Such is Life itself Furphy regarded as "one involved lie in seven chapters,"5 and as a "collection of lies."6 And so on.
It is clear that the kind of double impersonation we find in Clarke emerges in Tom Collins in various ways: socially speaking, Tom is at once a "wouldbe" Bulletin-style "outlaw" and a reactionary hierarchicalist, the intended of Maud Beaudesart; or he claims to condemn a romance vision, that is to say an old world construction on vernacular Australian reality, only to misread this reality - Nosey Alf's situation, say - in terms worthy of Ouida or Henry Kingsley's The Recollections of Geoffrey Hamlyn. But this double impersonation also enters into Tom Collins simply as a narrative stance. Furphy, we know, conceived of himself as "half-bushman and half-bookworm."7 And this - were Such is Life not a comic fiction - would be a formula surely for a kind of confused mixture that we should normally call "monstrous." As it is, it catches up a wry sense of inauthenticity or imposture in him; an Australian cultural nationalist not only shares identity with a European bookworm, but also competes with him for this identity, imitates and impersonates him and so to an extent robs him of it. And vice-versa. It catches up therefore a sense of "the mighty pipe . . . smoking me": "And if the censorious reader has detected here and there in these pages a tendency towards the Higher Criticism or a leaning towards State Socialism, or any passage that seemed to indicate a familiarity with cuneiform inscription, or with the history and habits of Pre-Adamic Man, he may be assured that, at the time of writing such passages, I had been smoking the mighty pipe - or rather, the mighty pipe had been smoking me - and the unlawful erudition had effervesced per motion of my scholastic ally."
One major episode from Such is Life - Chapter 3, all that there is space to consider - should serve to bring out his concern with imposture. Furphy cues the reader to it right away; Tom confesses that he has concealed his role in an "un-British outrage," an act of arson committed on November 9, 1883,8 and that he has put it about that the real culprit has been an escapee from Beechworth Asylum, a lunatic who "must have drowned himself in the river." And it pervades what follows. In the first place, it turns out, Tom has found himself "lost in the bush," his misadventure being a comic instance of a cliche in colonial writing. Having capsized on a double meander of the Murray, he has mistakenly travelled westwards on the river's Victorian side instead of eastwards on the N.S.W. side. Not only this, he has lost his clothing as well, a prerequisite of his civilised identity. Thus displaced outside the colonial clearing, as it were, he experiences a kind of comic "uncanniness":
Here I trod on something about as thick as your wrist - something round and smooth, which jerked and wriggled as my weight came upon it. I rose fully three feet into the air without conscious effort, and thenceforth pursued my difficult way with a subjective discontent which, I fear, did little honour to my philosophy; thinking, to confess the truth, what an advantage it would be if man, figuratively a mopoke, could become one in reality when all the advantage lay in that direction; also, feeling prepared to wager my official dignity against a pair of - that Longfellow would never have apostrophised the welcome, the thrice-prayed-for, the most fair, the best-beloved Night, if he had known what it was to work his passage through pitch-black purgatory, in a state of paradise-nudity, with the incongruity of association pressing on his mind. Ignorance again; but such is life.
Naturally Tom tries to return within the civilized pale. But having once been displaced, having willy-nilly commenced the process of his own indigenization, and even decolonization, he recoils only to aggravate the effect of his initial displacement. After this, it seems, he can own only to a phantom identity: "Wha - what's that white thing there in front?" No longer identical with his erstwhile self, he might now be a mere impersonation of it. By impersonating himself, what is more, he manages Parson Adams-wise to show up other impersonations for what they are, the screaming draper's assistant's and, later, Jim/Jemima's; it is as if his definitive contact with the Other has become a cause of contamination for his community at large. Were this not the case, indeed, Tom could hardly experience the difficulty he does in retrieving his colonial Sameness. David Malouf says perceptively:
"He has to begin from scratch, and what he discovers is that to get back inside and make himself respectable he must break every social code. Once reversed (mad?), he sees everything from the opposite point of view, and from there, outside and naked in the dark, nothing civilized or Christian makes sense. He has to make his own sense - so does the reader. The result is an exploratory form of anarchy, playful on the part of the author, desperate on the part of the protagonist, in which everything gets turned on its head, and, when righted, can never be the same again.9
In order to regain the "c'lonianity" (175/79) he has begun willy-nilly to forfeit - and in effect exchange the unheimlich for "Home" - Tom is even driven to the "un-British" offence of burning Quarterman's hay-stack. He is now quite "othered" from himself, bushed not once, but comprehensively. In his confusion, indeed, he suffers a kind of comic sparagmos or hypertrophy according to which he has at once too much and too little identity: in his interview with Quarterman he becomes by turns Mr Collins, Mr Connell, Mr O'Connell, Mr O'Connor, Mr Connor, Mr Connelly, Mr Conway, and Mr Connellan. (Elsewhere he metamorphoses into Tam McCallum, Collings, Collin, and Mr Tongcollin.)
In the exposure and "death" of the hero is the birth of two heroes: a Tom Collins who, in the face of the Other, might be impersonating what it is to be indigenous, and a reactionary Tom Collins who perforce impersonates his former "c'lonian" self. In the exposure and "death" of the hero is the beginning of a double imposture (and for that matter of doubles). This new, complicated Tom Collins - these new Tom Collinses - might as well be fictional, which of course he/they conspicuously is/are: a teller of tales who "always managed to vanish before his destroyer, as he was imaginary."
And here I want to take a further step in this reading of Tom's adventure. Once we are reminded of the self-referentiality of Such is Life - if indeed we needed to be reminded - it becomes possible to read Chapter 3 as a marvellously compact quasi-allegory of the fate of writing in Australia's late colonial phase. For Furphy, it is as if the old cultural orientation he has been able to assume (Victoria? New South Wales?) will no longer hold in the face of a "coming Australian" environment. Let us say that the "Riverina" has intervened in his colonizer's consciousness, rather as the Mississippi does in Mark Twain, the Twain who wants to be freed from the hold of the old world's Sir Walter Scott. And the result is a sense of imposture that takes the form of a certain discursive "monstrosity"/"hybridity."10 That which is English/European writing undergoes a kind of bifurcation in him. It reproduces itself in mirror modes of writing, the one being the reciprocal of the other: on one side, a "naked" vernacular, but a vernacular that also wants to be erudite, for Such is Life might be a "cyclopedia of everything Australian," including a number of emigrant vernaculars; and on the other side, an encyclopedic "erudition" that cannot but seem poignantly "unlawful" on the part of the auto-didact of the Shepparton Mechanics" Institute (Ch. 3's Plato, Kikero, Burns, Paine, Hamlet, Job, Oedipus at Colonus, King Lear, Byron, Goldsmith, Rabelais, Julius Caesar, Alice in Wonderland, Tennyson, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Cervantes, Wordsworth, Scott, Carlyle, etc.).
In yet a further step, Furphy's underlying sense of imposture yields what we can call a neo-vernacular, on the one hand, and a traditionalist tissue of citation, on the other. But no sooner are these mirror discourses realized, as it were, than they function in turn to falsify or "derealize" one another. And the result of this would seem to be a near nihilist impulse in the novel. Even as its hero develops into an authentic, double-dyed confidence man, the narrative that is Such is Life seems to regress, and to disappear in the manner of Melville's The Confidence Man, into a more or less undifferentiated fictionality. (I am thinking of Melville's confidence man's series of disguises.) "Now," run the last words of "that miserable impostor from the braes o' Yarra," "I had to enact the Cynic philosopher to Moriarty and Butler, and the aristocratic man with a 'past' to Mrs Beaudesart; with the satisfaction of knowing that each of these was acting a part to me. Such is life, my fellow-mummers - just like a poor player, that bluffs and feints his hour upon the stage, and then cheapens down to mere nonentity. But let me not hear any small witticism to the further effect that its story is a tale told by a vulgarian, full of slang and blanky, signifying - nothing."
I shall return to this question of regression shortly, by way of suggesting that Furphy's problematic combination of neo-vernacular with "unlawful erudition" may - like the dedoublement informing Clarke's For The Term of His Natural Life - be something of a paradigm for Australian writing. To mention Patrick White again, do we not find a comparable, indeed a still more obvious case of mirror-narration in The Solid Mandala? In this novel, it will be remembered, White is unusually concerned with the problem of representation in Australia, at the margin that he names Sarsaparilla. As he dramatizes it, this problem is experienced in the form of a dilemma, a choice of two complementary or "non-identical twin" problems. On the one hand, the writer in Australia has a primary need to develop a vernacular discourse that is responsive or transparent to ordinary life; this kind of naive, neo-vernacular writing is what, among other things, is signified by Arthur Brown's solid mandalas. On the other hand, of course, writing for The Solid Mandala is also "Writing." And this, as Arthur's reactionary brother Waldo would insist, is what we find in "the Books," Books such as The Brothers Karamazov, or even Carroll's Alice stories, monuments of old world culture which ought really to be regarded by naive auto-didacts or hermeneuts like Arthur, who wants to use them to help read his everyday situation, as off-limits, in effect as "unlawful erudition":
Waldo went on crunching over the bush soil of the neglected surface of Terminus Road. Soon at least they'd come out on tar.
"But Leonard Saporta was such a very ordinary man. I have nothing against him. But why should I write about him?"
Lady callers had enquired about Waldo's Writing as though it had been an illness, or some more frightening, more esoteric extension of cat's-cradle.
"There is nothing in Leonard Saporta," said Waldo, "that anyone could possibly write about."
Arthur walked looking at the stone.
"Well," he said carefully, "if you ask my opinion," and sometimes Mrs Poulter did, "simple people are somehow more" - he formed his lips into a trumpet - "more transparent," he didn't shout.
But Waldo was deafened by it.
The Solid Mandala's crisis is surely a familiar one; an old/new world: Same/Other opposition once again generates a dedoublement, one that there is no mistaking this time, and one that, if only because of White's tributary insertion of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov into his own text, is conspicuously self-referring. Is its resolution of this crisis - if that is what it is - familiar as well? To answer in terms of White's theme of representation-at-the-margin, for most of his narrative White holds out a hope of an Australian vernacular writing that will yet remain in touch with a parent European Writing. Eventually, however, what has seemed a tolerable, if problematic relationship between Arthur and Waldo - and we are talking always about possibilities of representation - proves to be non-viable. Instead of making for a productive synthesis, the narratives respectively called "Arthur" and "Waldo" are but the same crisis of potentially violent confusion seen from slightly different viewpoints. Unless White sees some positive sacrificial meaning here (via Mrs Poulter, who "canonizes" Arthur as her saint), the only apparent outcome in The Solid Mandala is collapse or regression into an undifferentiated condition, into the very confusion of Same and Other it has tried to mediate: Waldo Brown, dead of spite, and his non-identical twin Arthur, consigned to a mental institution, and retaining only one of his four solid mandalas.
The Solid Mandala's outcome is also familiar, if not exactly a resolution. Is it not familiar because Joseph Furphy has already concluded likewise, leaving us at the last in the hands of a phantom identity, a trickster, a figure whom Jung tells us "in his clearest manifestation . . . is a faithful reflection of an absolutely undifferentiated human consciousness, corresponding to a psyche that has hardly left the animal level"?11 Or, if I may be allowed so to put it, in the hands of a meerschaum pipe, the mighty pipe that smokes his fiction?
1 A Sense of Place in the New Literatures in English, ed. Peggy Nightingale (St. Lucia: Q'ld., 1986) 22 - 31.
2 Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back, Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London and New York: Routledge, 1989) passim.
3 Marcus Clarke (London: Oxford University Press, 1958).
4 Quoted by John Barnes, in The Order of Things: A Life of Joseph Furphy (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1990) 201.
5 Barnes, 210.
6 Barnes, 221.
7 Furphy to Miles Franklin, letter of 28 March, 1904, in Joseph Furphy: The Legend of a Man and his Book, Miles Franklin, in association with Kate Baker, (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1944) 96.
8 Julian Croft mentions a popular belief that such acts would be committed by the Irish. See The Life and Opinions of Tom Collins (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1991) 149-50.
9 Introduction to Such is Life (London: Hogarth Press, 1986) vii.
10 Such hybridity is perh