Riding in the Chariot: Not for everyone!

When Patrick White's 'Riders in the Chariot' was first published, he records in his autobiography being telephoned one day 'out of the blue' by a person carrying a thick accent from somewhere in Central Europe asking him whether he wanted to 'go further'. He understood this to mean an invitation to more deeply explore the Kabbalah of which Himmelfarb (one of the book's central characters) becomes a student and whose imagery underpins the frame of the book itself.

White declined and it was only when he was putting the receiver down that he realized who the voice belonged to; namely, the relative of a friend, whom he had seen occasionally at social gatherings, out of place, carrying more than a flavour of the 'shtetl' and whose 'presence' had intrigued him. He was immediately filled with regret but equally felt that the moment of invitation had passed.

He possibly sensed that there is a significant difference between the intuitive, felt grasp of a subject for the purposes of making art and the steady, cumulative study and practice of a tradition for the purposes of holiness. A rightful distinction, I feel, but you have to wonder what future fruits might have be born out of such a collaboration.

'Riders' is the most penetrating study of evil that I know, and the most convincing literary attempt at portraying 'mysticism'. That the book takes risks with its material is clear: imagining convincingly a drunken re-enactment of the crucifixion in the yard of the Brighta Bicycle factory is only the highest of these, that he succeeds triumphantly is, to me, equally clear in fashioning one of the great novels of the twentieth century that is both utterly of its place and time, and by being so transcends it.

I love the marshaling of the lives of the four central characters into a meaningful whole, where each contributes to the gathered final sense of wholeness (even as they may fail in any particular action, in this our wounds can be a source of being blessed unawares). Each character is a bearer of a different quality: sense, intuition, feeling and thought - and each of these dimensions is both honoured and placed in dynamic relation to the others, and each character shares the vision of the chariot that binds them and yet makes them vulnerable to the world.

It is also extremely and caustically funny. White can have an eye that strips all our pretentions bare, dismantling our defensive social selves to expose us to a deeper potential freedom, that most of us, most of the time, fight shy of, at best!


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