Grace and Vivisection

Patrick White's 'The Vivisector' is a brilliant work on the relationship of art and spirituality

Patrick White didn’t win the ‘Lost’ Man Booker Prize (given to a novel published in 1970) when it was announced recently, but his novel, The Vivisector, is certainly worth celebrating. It is one of the unsung works of genius on the relationship between art and spirituality.

David Marr, White’s biographer, described The Vivisector as “a writer’s profound exercise in self-justification” but it is also a profound exercise in self-laceration and personal dissection—that is, vivisection. The novel’s central character, an artist named Hurtle Duffield, is at once a god-like creative genius and a moral worm. He ‘vivisects’ his friends and family for the sake of his art. In this way, White suggests, he is like God: a creative force that leaves a trail of wreckage around him.

Whilst heretical in its suggestion that God may not be good, White’s vision of God has a great deal to commend it. It takes us well past the notions of God as a benign heavenly grandfather, or a set of perfect rules or universal laws; it suggests God is far more likely to be involved in the nitty gritty of life in this world.

The renowned Christian literature professor, C.S. Lewis, wrote these grief-stricken words after the death of his wife: “Someone said, I believe, ‘God always geometrizes’. Supposing the truth were ‘God always vivisects’.” It is one thing to suggest that God will be found in the principles of reason and order; that might get you a god such as Aristotle’s Prime Mover, or the remote god of the scientific Deists. But to find a personal God, that will require things to be messier, more difficult, more confusing, earthier.

Hurtle Duffield sees “a great discrepancy between aesthetic truth and sleazy reality”; he contrasts the orderly world of geometric expression with the mess that meets us in our day to day lives. Aestheticism suggests meaning will be found in pattern and order, whereas we all know that meaning may be more often found in the chaos, the mess and the waste of life.

“The Germans express it best,” says Duffield, “Dreck! Dreck!…Well, I will learn to live with such Dreck as I am: to find a reason and purpose in this Dreck.” Dreck: filth, excrement, putrescence.

The truth can be found in places that hurt, the places that make a person raw and uncomfortable, unclean and exposed, the leftovers of our attempts to live out our dreams. The truth is found under the edge of the razor blade, according to White, in the vivisector’s precision cuts.

God comes into the refuse, the Dreck of life, and finds us there

Hurtle Duffield is driven to paint, as a child, because of the proximity of death. The novel opens with a genealogy of family deaths—a consumption, a seizure and three miscarriages—revealed to the young Hurtle by his grandfather. It ends with the death of the painter, in his own studio, as he experiences a vision of the divine, in the form of the colour indigo. Finally, Duffield the artist is himself deconstructed, creativity pulled apart by the destructive forces of reality (it is no accident that Duffield’s painting, ‘The Whole of Life’ remains unfinished). Death is the great moment of realisation that everything doesn’t hang together, and in order to find truth and meaning we will have to deal with the dreadful reality of returning to the dirt.

That may be close to the truth, but the Christian notion is a little more subtle and a lot more hopeful. God is not there in the refuse, but God comes into the refuse, the Dreck of life, and finds us there. God is not, to cite another White novel, The Tree of Man, a ‘gob of spittle’ glistening on a pavement; but God enters into the spit-filled world where He has to get his hands dirty in order to reach us.

In Christianity, it is called ‘grace’. It’s the idea that God can make beauty out of ugliness, love out of waste, goodness out of chaos.

Quoting St Augustine, C.S. Lewis also made this point about grace, that it enters into the place of loss and darkness and ugliness, and that’s the only place in which it can truly be received: “God gives his gifts where He finds the vessel empty enough to receive them.”

A vivisected artist wallowing in his own waste: to grasp true spirituality we have to see him as a potential site of grace.

Greg Clarke is Director of the Centre for Public Christianity

This article orginally appeared on ABC Unleashed