Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Solid Mandala by Patrick White

In the first corner, as a prelude to all that he had to reveal, he danced the dance of himself.  Half clumsy, half electric.  He danced the gods dying on a field of crimson velvet, against the discords of human voices.  Even in the absence of gods, his life, or dance, was always prayerful.  Even though he hadn't been taught, like the grocer, to go down on his knees and stick his hands together.  Instead, offering his prayer to what he knew from light or silences.  He danced the sleep of people in a wooden house, groaning under the pressure of sleep, their secrets locked prudently up, safe, until their spoken thoughts, or farts, gave them away.  He danced the moon, anaesthetized by bottled cestrum.  He danced the disc of the orange sun above icebergs, which was in a sense his beginning, and should perhaps be his end.

The Solid Mandala begins by introducing its pair of protagonist twins, Arthur and Waldo Brown, when they are very old, and walking along the streets of their Sydney suburb hand in hand.  Those who see them from the bus think they are odd, and so they are:

Then Mrs Dun did resentfully noticed the two old men, stumping, trudging, you couldn't have said tottering -- or if so, it was only caused by their age and infirmities -- along what passed for pavement between Barranguli and Sarsparilla.  The strange part was the old gentlemen rose up, if only momentarily, blotting out the suburban landscape, filling the box of Mrs Dun's shuddering mind.  She was still shocked, of course, by Mrs Poulter's thoughtless alarm.  It could have been that.  But she almost smelled those old men.  The one in the stiff oilskin, the other in yellowed herringbone, in each case almost to the ankle.  And as they trudged, or tottered, they were holding each other by the hand.  It was difficult to decide which was leading and which was led.  But one was the leader, she could sense.  She sensed the scabs, the cracks which wet towels had opened in their old men's skin.

Ew!  White has a knack for turning the human body into a kind of gross poetry.  From there, the narrative bifurcates: one section detailing Waldo's life, followed by one detailing Arthur's, which pretty much covers the same narrative ground from another vantage point.  The brothers depend on each other all their lives, though they are very different: Waldo is insecure, a failed intellectual, who resents the burden he perceives his brother to be.  Arthur is unable to grasp the politics of the social world, but filled with a wisdom and a kind of mystical love.  When Waldo is working at a library, he discovers his brother in the reading room, perceived by others to be a kind of lurking creep, and so he shoos him away, but it is Arthur, we find out, who is reading and pondering the episode of the Grand Inquisitor from Dostoyevsky.  For all of Waldo's pretensions--he jealously guards the book he has been writing for seventy years--it is Arthur who has a kind of true understanding.

Arthur keeps a set of four marbles in his pocket.  He thinks of them as mandalas, the Buddhist symbol which represents the universe:

It was himself who was, and would remain, the keeper of mandalas, who must guess their final secret through touch and light.  As he went out of the room his lips were half-open to release an interpretation he had not yet succeeded in perfecting.  His body might topple, but only his bod,y as he submitted the marble in his pocket to his frenzy of discovery.

Arthur gives one of these to each person in the book he loves, including one to Waldo. They are a recognition that each person is a universe unto themselves, patterned the same way as existence itself and therefore harmonious with it.  Waldo, of course, cannot understand this.  Just as Mrs Dun cannot tell who is leading whom, but knows that one brother leads the other, so Waldo is unable to submit to his brother's wisdom because he remains convinced that he is doing the leading.

Arthur is a familiar kind of trope: a holy fool, a Shakespearean "natural," so called because they were perceived to be closer to the nature of things and uncorrupted by the pretensions of society.  But White is really good at this kind of mysticism, partly because of the intense obscurity of his style.  Though I liked the "Waldo" section--a long and detailed account of a very failed man--it was the shorter "Arthur" section that really made The Solid Mandala work for me.

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