Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2579
Lawrence Durrell’s goal in writing is to “sum up in a sort of metaphor the cosmology of a particular moment in which we are living.” He is a metaphysical writer who, through his characters, asks philosophical questions such as, What is the nature of reality? How does the artist describe...
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- Critical Essays
Lawrence Durrell’s goal in writing is to “sum up in a sort of metaphor the cosmology of a particular moment in which we are living.” He is a metaphysical writer who, through his characters, asks philosophical questions such as, What is the nature of reality? How does the artist describe it in words? What is the right way to live as an artist and as a human being?
When Durrell’s perspective on reality is considered, the reader must first take into account his origins in India. Throughout his life, Durrell recalled his “childhood dream of Tibet” with great nostalgia:If you live in a Buddhist country, it is so extraordinary. You wake up without being afraid of your neighbor, as you do in the countries we inhabit. The whole of nature seems permeated by a sense of harmless good will, and it opens a field for self-development which is not accessible in a country where you have very rigid, theologically oriented people with a national ethos that’s repressive or restrictive in any way.
Drawing on these childhood memories and his readings in contemporary physics, Durrell claims that the cosmology of the mid-twentieth century can be found in a blend of Western physics with Eastern metaphysics, which he says “are coming to a point of confluence.” These notions are explained in A Key to Modern British Poetry, which Durrell published in 1952.
In A Key to Modern British Poetry, Durrell begins by looking at Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, whom he calls the two major architects of modern Western consciousness. Einstein is significant because he “torpedoed the old Victorian material universe” and Freud because he “torpedoed the idea of the stable ego.” The discoveries of Einstein and Freud, occurring in nearly the same time period, unlocked the secrets of the “universe outside man, and the universe inside.” Einstein, and the physicists who followed him, in exploring the universe outside humankind, discarded the notion that the smallest unit of matter is the particle. They proved, instead, that “particles” sometimes are better thought of as waves. Durrell translates this discovery into human terms: At times people are conscious of themselves as individuals, but if they accept the fact of the continuum that exists in the melding of time and space, then people “may perhaps form ingredients of a single continuous stream of life.”
In Durrell’s view, Freud’s discovery of the universe inside humankind parallels Einstein’s investigations into the world outside. Studying hysterics in the 1890’s, Freud noticed how under hypnosis they were able to recall painful experiences of which their waking, conscious minds were unaware. Freud hypothesized that there was an area of the mind beyond consciousness; he called it the unconscious, and, according to Durrell, that is “how the idea of the splitting of the psyche first started.” Durrell, like D. H. Lawrence before him, rejected “the old stable ego of character” in favor of characterization that is more amorphous and ambiguous. As Balthazar in The Alexandria Quartet says: “Each psyche is really an ant-hill of opposing predispositions. Personality as something with fixed attributes is an illusion.”
If space and time are relative and the human personality is not fixed, the cosmology of the age needs to reflect these uncertainties. The closest equivalent philosophical system, in Durrell’s view, can be found in Eastern philosophies. According to Buddhism, once the ego stops its selfish cravings, it enters a state of oneness with the universe. Durrell calls this state a “field,” which is the spiritual equivalent of the field concept in physics. Durrell believes that the unity and interrelatedness of matter in the physical world can be applied to the spiritual realm as well: “Phenomena may be individuals carrying on separate existences in space and time, but in the deeper reality beyond space and time we may be all members of one body.” Durrell has a name for this deeper reality; he calls it the Heraldic Reality.
Durrell’s entire literary output—his poetry, novels, and travel writings—can be seen as a quest to enter this exalted realm. Many of Durrell’s major characters, such as Darley, Pursewarden, and Clea in The Alexandria Quartet, Constance and Blanford in The Avignon Quintet, and the narrative voice of Prospero’s Cell (1945), are heroes and heroines on a quest to transform their lives. As they proceed in their quest, they face obstacles. They sometimes realize that they have set off in the wrong direction. As the narrator of The Black Book says: “There is only trial and error on a journey like this, and no signposts.”
The people that Durrell’s modern hero encounters are no help, either. They also have no recognizable signposts to their personalities. When Justine in The Alexandria Quartet looks at her multifaceted reflections in a dressmaker’s mirror, she asks: “Why should not people show more than one profile at a time?”
The quests on which Durrell’s characters embark do not exactly follow the traditional pattern of the Western hero. Instead, these journeys more closely correspond to the movement of the soul in reincarnation. Even when Durrell began his writing career in the 1930’s, he had this pattern in mind. The first draft of Justine (1957) was entitled The Book of the Dead. The Avignon Quintet also deals with death. In an interview, Durrell noted the importance of this subject: “The basic trauma, the basic neurosis” in human life is death. If one can get “on top of it” by facing its reality and also by subduing the “recalcitrant ego,” then one can achieve “celestial amnesia, which is antiegoism.” One then ends up “swimming in the continuum,” another word for the Heraldic Reality.
First published: 1945
Type of work: Memoir
Durrell moves to Corfu with his family in the 1930’s and comes of age as a writer.
Prospero’s Cell is a fine example of Durrell’s metaphysical speculations and a precursor to The Alexandria Quartet. Durrell, believing that “we are the children of our landscape,” tries to capture the essence of Greece in this book of his travels. Written in the 1930’s, when Durrell was just starting out as a writer, the book is more like a portrait of the artist as a young man than a conventional travel guide. He records the learning process that he has to undergo in order to become a writer, rather than listing the typical tourist attractions.
The process begins when, like a child, Durrell examines the building blocks of reality: “rock, air, sky—and all the elementals . . . white house, white rock, friends, and a narrow style of living.” Greece, at this stage of his creative development, provides the raw materials for his inspiration; he tries to manipulate its images into art. His challenge is to capture in words the multifaceted nature of reality.
In Prospero’s Cell, he finds that Corfu’s reality, which to him is always changing and receding, still seems touched by the wand of William Shakespeare’s magician, Prospero. The book, written in the form of a journal, mixes history and metaphysical speculations about life, geology, biography, folk customs, and peasant remedies, reflecting the narrator’s difficulty in capturing the island’s spirit. The primary quality of Durrell’s Corfu is transformation, as he views the island undergoing a sea change before his eyes. Traveling through the Greek waters, one leaves behind “the certainties” of the “real” world: “You enter Greece as one might enter a dark crystal; the form of things becomes irregular, refracted. Mirages suddenly swallow islands, and wherever you look the trembling curtain of the atmosphere deceives.”
The narrative voice receives artistic advice from Count D., a Prospero-like wealthy recluse who resides on the island. The Count tells him that the best one can do is create “a portrait inexact in detail, containing bright splinters of landscape.” The count’s advice gives the narrator confidence that his fragmented images will come as close to the truth of Corfu as anything he could write.
The inexactness, the mutable natural world, the characters’ various visions, and the slippery nature of time and language are depicted for a reason. Durrell is testing out his notions of the Heraldic Universe. He contrasts the world of phenomena or striving (which he calls the “minus side”) to the world of repose or the Heraldic Universe (the “plus side”). The “plus” and “minus sides,” as he describes them, can be connected to Eastern philosophies. Knowledge of these two angles of vision allows him “to see Greece with the inner eyes—not as a collection of battered vestiges left over from cultures long since abandoned—but as something ever-present and ever-renewed.” In other words, Greece is the rich background on which Durrell constructs his own image of the country, a place where “sunlight and inner light meet.”
The Alexandria Quartet
First published: Justine, 1957; Balthazar, 1958; Mountolive, 1958; Clea, 1960; published collectively as The Alexandria Quartet, 1962
Type of work: Novels
The Alexandria Quartet is Durrell’s investigation of modern love, as told through the experiences of the character Darley, who is a young Englishman living in Alexandria.
The Alexandria Quartet is the story of the life and loves of a young British man, Darley, who lives in Egypt during World War II. Darley has love affairs with three women: Justine, the sensuous Jewish wife of a rich Egyptian banker, Nessim; Melissa, a dancer in a cabaret who develops tuberculosis and dies; and Clea, a beautiful artist who eventually becomes Darley’s soulmate.
The central topic of the The Alexandria Quartet is “an investigation of modern love.” Durrell believed in the idea, whose origin is in Platonism, that by studying and experiencing the varieties of love, one can ascend from raw physical contact to higher forms of spiritual connection. In an interview, Durrell describes the role of love:The sexual act becomes identified with all knowledge, all knowing; and the act . . . seems a sort of biological contraption whose object is not only the race’s survival, but also the awakening of the psychic forces latent in the human being.
Thus Eros is the “motive force in man,” a “vibration” that is meant “to wake some of the engines of understanding” in men and women. Each of the major characters in The Alexandria Quartet embodies one or more aspects of Western love. Justine represents the power of sexual passion, and Melissa, charitable affection. In keeping with Durrell’s view that Western love is bankrupt, the characters seek but fail to find passionate love relationships that will somehow transform their lives. Trapped in Alexandria’s great “winepress of love,” they cannot escape their egos’ obsessive delusions; they all are “deeply wounded in their sex.” Only Clea, who pulls Darley along with her, transforms her life and art—the two are inextricably mixed in Durrell’s view.
Clea’s transformation occurs on a boat trip when Darley accidentally releases a harpoon that pins Clea’s painting hand to an underwater wreck. To save her life, Darley is forced to cut off her hand. The anguish, physical pain, and empathy that the two characters experience dissolve the petty, selfish concerns that their egos had previously placed at the center of the relationship. They experience a transforming vision that gives them a sense of their belonging.
Durrell also investigates Western relativity. The Alexandria Quartet is structured to correspond to Einstein’s theory of relativity: “Three sides of space and one of time constitute the soup-mix recipe of a continuum. The four novels follow this pattern.” The first three volumes explore differing perspectives on the novel’s events; Clea moves the story along in time.
The Alexandria Quartet ends with Clea’s recovery and with both Darley and Clea feeling reborn as artists. They decide to separate after the end of World War II, as they both make plans to go to Europe. In an interview in 1986, Durrell assumed that they would eventually reunite. He claimed that “they’re preparing to make a child.” They are ready to give birth as artists and as human beings.
The Avignon Quintet
First published: Monsieur: Or, The Prince of Darkness, 1974; Livia: Or, Buried Alive, 1978; Constance: Or, Solitary Practices, 1981; Sebastian: Or, Ruling Passions, 1983; Quinx: Or, The Ripper’s Tale, 1985; published collectively as The Avignon Quintet, 1992
Type of work: Novels
Several groups of young people, searching for the meaning of life during World War II, fall under the spell of a gnostic cult.
The Avignon Quintet is a vast, multidimensional novel of five parts. Durrell calls the arrangement a quincunx, which is an arrangement of five objects with four located at the corners of a square and the fifth at the center (the pattern for the fives in a deck of cards). A person, with four limbs and the kundalini, corresponds to this arrangement. The kundalini is coiled energy lying at the base of the spine.
In The Avignon Quintet, Durrell is attempting, by means of the novel form, to construct a cosmology for the modern age. The story is set in Avignon, the seat of the Roman Catholic popes from 1309 to 1377. The novel’s focus, though, is not on organized religion but on its antithesis: heresy. Several of the major characters belong to a heretical gnostic cult based in Egypt and led by a wealthy Egyptian, Akkad. This wealthy cult preaches that the world is corrupt, because it is composed of evil matter that is alien to the human spirit and the true God. This world cannot be attributed to a God that is good; instead, it is the creation of a demiurge. Durrell calls him Monsieur or the Prince of Darkness: “The Prince of Usury, the spirit of gain, the enigmatic power of capital value embodied in the poetry of gold, or specie, or scrip.”
Some extreme gnostics believe that there is a way out of the corrupt world; they can refuse to accept its terms by committing suicide. In Akkad’s cult, the member who is to die is chosen randomly and the deed is done by someone else. The Avignon Quintet begins with such an execution. Bruce Drexel is arriving in Avignon to attend the funeral of his best friend, lover, and brother-in-law, Piers de Nogaret. Bruce tries to make sense of Piers’s death by recalling their visit to Egypt, during which they viewed one of Akkad’s gnostic rituals. Piers had embraced the cult’s beliefs and become a convert.
In the meantime, other characters and situations are introduced. Names and details blend into one another so that it becomes hard to distinguish them. The initial trio of characters has much in common with the next trio, Hilary, Livia, and Constance, who appear in Livia. In addition, characters who are first presented as real later turn out to be imaginary. The novelist Rob Sutcliffe, who has apparently married Bruce’s sister Pia, is not real at all; he is a fabrication of another novelist, Aubrey Blanford. Both men, of course, are fabrications of yet a third novelist, Lawrence Durrell.
Durrell, master trickster, has a serious purpose at hand. Through his spokesmen—Akkad and his clone, Affad—Durrell articulates a dark view of life, that “death sets in with conception.” Yet, if one accepts the reality of human life—that one must die—then one can improvise a new mode of existence that breaks the deadening bonds of conventionality. As Akkad explains, one can become “truthful in a way that you never thought you could be.”