Voss Readalong – Week 4

This is the catch-up week. If you have fallen behind, or lost your way, like Voss, you have two extra days this week to make up time!

I will post a final AusReading Month post on the 30th November with a full book review ofVoss in the days immediately after that. A review, where hopefully, I can pull all these scattered strands together!

Week 4: chapters 13 – 16

  • The comet – what does it mean? To Voss, Patrick White, the Aboriginal tribes?
  • Illness & suffering, madness & heroism, humility vs pride, agony & ecstasy – interiority
  • Practical vs visionary characters?
  • Often compared to Moby-Dick – is the ‘outback’ Voss’ whale, or is it Laura?
  • How does White portray Aboriginal characters? What is their role or purpose in the story?

Week 3 – My thoughts so far

This week has been a bit of a struggle with Voss. Voss the man that is, not Voss the book. He’s not a pleasant man to spend time with. The Moby-Dick comparison has been playing around in the back of my mind a lot this week. I adored MD, in fact I obssessed about MB in much the same way that Voss obssesses about his expedition. So why hasn’t Voss grabbed me in quite the same way?

The answer is simple – Voss!

MD is NOT told from Ahab’s point of view. It it had been, it would have been a tedious story. However having the story told from Ishmael’s perspective was a brilliant decision by Melville. We could see the manical behaviour of Ahab from a remove, even as we felt it’s impact more keenly. Having Voss told from Voss’ viewpoint overwhelms the other characters, especially the men who are travelling with him. Thankfully every alternate chapter is from Laura’s point of view, otherwise the story would have become too tedious to continue.

What has kept me going though is Patrick White’s writing.

The imagery is often startling, the descriptions of the landscape stunning and his early character assessments were brilliant. Voss is just a pain in the neck though, and my care factor about his well-being is fading fast. In fact, I can almost say that I am looking forward to the ending I know he has coming his way!

But now onto other matters! Another letter in chapter nine alerts us to the fact that it is now March 1846.

However, this section is where the whole cave allegory comes into it’s own. Despite the distraction of migraines, funerals, balls and weddings, the story is becoming more and more about Voss.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

When I first learnt that Plato’s cave was going to be a factor in Voss, I initially thought the entire book was a reflection of the allegory. Voss and his men, leaving the comforts and safety of society (the cave), along with all the illusions and dreams that are a part of civilisation as we know it (the shadows). The aim – to find enlightenment, the truth, the meaning of life – in the wilderness – and to bring this new found knowledge back to share with those who stayed behind.

But then, in chapter ten, Voss and his men seek shelter in an actual cave.

The cave has no shadows, but it does have Aboriginal rock drawings.

These appeared immense as the reddish light shifted over the surface of the walls. The simplicity and truthfulness of the symbols was at times terribly apparent, to the extent that each man interpreted them according to his own needs and level.

One of the first things you learn very quickly when looking into Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, is how many different ways it can be interpreted. Some of the ways are contradictory – is the cave our personal prison complete with childhood conditioning and societal norms with enlightment to a higher, perhaps divine, purpose only possible by leaving that false reality behind? Or is the cave religion (or any other institution or political system), the images carefully controlled by leaders who want us to know only what they want to reveal? To escape this contrived existence you must leave the cave and see (and think and experience) for yourself.

It’s quite fascinating really.

No wonder Plato’s Cave has been an idea used by storytellers, over and over again, down through the ages. (If you’re wondering what a modern day take on this allegory might look like, watch The Truman Show.)

Basically Plato’s Cave is the story of how humans perceive reality and an attempt to answer the perennial questions, who am I and what is my purpose?

Perhaps I am still a cave dweller, but I like a good list, so I pulled together some of the philsophising about this allegory into dot points. These are a few of the ways of viewing the cave and the ones who leave.

  • Opinion vs real knowledge
  • Empirical evidence vs philosophical reasoning
  • Ignorance vs truth
  • Conventional mores vs free thinking
  • Belief vs reason
  • Childhood vs adulthood
  • Manipulation vs liberation
  • Stagnation vs growth
  • Passive vs experiential learning
  • Denial of chaos vs acceptance of chaos
  • Going through the motions vs change
  • Self-interest vs magnanimity
  • Mundane vs transcendental
  • Isolation vs awakening
  • Illusions vs awe & wonder

In the end, it all comes down to interpretation.

In that tormented cave the German was a scraggy figure, of bare legs with random hairs upon them, but his shadow did dominate the wall.

From this list it’s clear to see that Patrick White was in favour of the transcendental approach inVoss. Voss senses that he is Called to engage in a Search or Struggle for some kind of higher purpose. Will there be a Breakthrough and a Return, or is he doomed to spend the last four chapters wandering, lost in his own delusions, in the desert?

Personally, I suspect that Voss has wandered into a cave of his own making. A case of someone believing their own bullshit, doomed by his own arrogance and messianic zeal.

‘I will not consider the personal appeals of love,’ he said, ‘or deviate in any way from my intention to cross this country.’

How are you travelling with Voss?

Have you lost your way? Or are you still with us? Is Voss what you expected it to be?

7 thoughts on “Voss Readalong – Week 4

  1. I couldn’t remember where Week 3 ended, but I got to halfway through Ch 13 and then gave my brain a rest (listened to Cut which I just reviewed). I can’t add anything profound about the cave. I’ll listen to the remainder (3 and a half hours) over the weekend I hope and then write it up – I’ve made a start. thanks for leading this read-along, I’ve found it very worthwhile.


        1. I have been wondering where Voss will end up for you. I still feel that I haven’t read enough Australian classics to really work up a decent GAN, but for me The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is up there.


  2. I just have to share something humorous. I’m the person who kept an eye on the one and only ebook at the library, someone else grabbed it and so I was reading the book online via a website where you can only read for 1 hour at a time and then you have to borrow the book again. That was working out fine but then I had issues with a leaky roof and yatta yatta so I dropped out.

    Well, imagine my excitement today when the Kindle became available at my library!!! FINALLY that other person was finished with it!!! “Now I can catch up with the group this weekend!!” I thought.

    Yah. Except that when I pulled it up on my Kindle I discovered it was written in SPANISH!


    Liked by 1 person

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