This article investigates the meaning and function of the extreme place of the desert in Patrick White’s Voss (1957), whose eponymous protagonist, a German explorer possessed by a god-like delirium, attempts to cross the Australian continent from East to West. By using the narrative frame of the exploration journey, White reworks and reassess the colonial figure of the conqueror of an alleged terra nullius showing how the exploration of the inner Australian continent is actually an exploration of the mind of the protagonist. As the prototype of the untouched nature, antagonistic to human progress in its vastness and immutability, the desert and its extreme conditions create a perfect setting for Voss’s self-testing, and for his proud and mad longing for elevation to a superior state of existence. The desert is perceived by Voss as a blank page on which he can write his obsession, but in the end Voss is stripped bare of his heroic stature and reduced, by means of suffering and hard-won humility, to a human being who is finally possessed by the land he had strived to dominate. At the end of his journey Voss loses his supposedly godlike stature and is faced with the limits and weaknesses of a human being. His death by decapitation represents the loss of his leadership and the conquering of his pride, and allows the reader to rethink the meaning of failure and the implications of knowledge, which is not a matter of geography, but of suffering in the country of the mind.
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