The Revolt of Aphrodite

by Lawrence Durrell

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1045

The epigraph for Nunquam, from which Durrell derives the titles of both volumes of The Revolt of Aphrodite, is taken from The Satyricon of Petronius: "Aut tunc, aut nunquam." Translated in the epigraph as "It was then or never," and elsewhere by Durrell in the familiar it's-now-or-never formulation, this motif points to a network of related themes, inextricably bound up with each other, which may be stated simply as choice, freedom, enslavement, and contractual obligation. There is, as Durrell notes in his afterword to Nunquam, no mystery in the epigraph from Petronius: "It's always now or never — since we are human and enjoy the fatality of choice. Indeed the moment of choice is always now." This necessity of choice and fatality of choice, together with the consequences thereof. constitutes the principal theme of the work.

Felix Charlock, the narrator and central character, chooses to join "the firm," or Merlin, which Durrell presents as "the international corporation that seeks to control the destinies of us all." Charlock's choice, joining the firm, reeks of "fatality": obedient to the firm, he marries Benedicta Merlin, sister of his boss, the elusive, evasive Julian, and thus endures that curious, tortured relationship under the double-edged equation, job equals marriage, marriage equals job.

As the inventor of Abel, the "brilliant machine" or sophisticated computer which foretells the future, Felix is indispensable to the firm. Restive under that indispensability, Felix longs to be free from its clutches. As a scientist he is profoundly disconcerted that his research, his inventions, are used by the firm solely for purposes of exploitation of humankind, in the rawest kind of "greedy mercantile spirit." As a man, he feels his enslavement by the firm grievously. Near the end of Tunc, which is persuasively concerned with his efforts to be free, Felix tells his boss Julian that he has reached a point where he "must make a gesture, even the feeblest of free gestures, to continue breathing." But he is reminded by Julian of "the sanctity of contractual obligation," which essentially makes Felix an indentured servant of the firm; indeed, as Julian darkly suggests, the firm is the world, is "a fact of nature, man's nature," and no one can "blink the firm." Thus Tunc concludes, or so it would seem, with the only escape from the firm available to Felix: death.

His apparent suicide by drowning, however, is revised or revealed at the beginning of Nunquam to be illusory, as we find Felix, now officially insane. committed to the Paulhaus, the hospital of the firm. Variations on the theme of freedom and the fatality of choice abound in the second volume of this "double-decker novel." For example, when he becomes involved in the process of creating a dummy — Iolanthe, one of Charlock's main concerns is the need to construct the robot in a fashion that will allow some freedom, some choice. There are deliberate echoes of the Eden story and of God's creation of Adam, free to choose, free to fall. When he finally murders, destroys his own dummy-creation, in a powerful scene in St. Paul's Cathedral (ironic echo of the Paulhaus hospital, where the novel began). Charlock concludes his "story of the Fall, and how I slew my darling more in sorrow than in anger, more in sickness than in health." Perhaps this choice marks the beginning of Charlock's personal freedom, his Fortunate Fall (Felix Culpa), when he is free from the curse of invention, when he ceases to live as creator or inventor and begins to live as a man.

There are, however, no simplistic resolutions of Durrell's themes in this complex, elusive, shifting, riddling work. Even the most dramatic choice made in The Revolt of Aphrodite, the act of freedom that goes beyond the merely personal, and points toward some kind of universal redemption or renewal — the destruction of the firm's archives — is treated ambiguously. By the end of Nunquam, when the "whole responsibility of the firm" is in the hands of "Felix Charlock, bound in mind and body" (as he describes himself), Felix and Benedicta decide to take the great liberating blow of burning all of the firm's archives, thus allowing freedom for all whose destinies have been controlled by this vast sinister international corporation. The great fire will occur on Christmas Eve, the eve of rebirth and renewal. Some readers will no doubt view this conclusion (as have some critics) as powerfully optimistic and affirmative, as a resolution that promises a new society, a civilization and a culture reborn, rooted in nature, in biology, in love, and in organic relationships, rather than in contractual obligation and exploitation. However, other readers will share the reservations and "alarm" of the minor character Baum who, on the last page, gives Felix his assessment of the effects of the great fire: "Either everything will disintegrate, the firm will begin to dissolve; or else nothing, Mr. Felix, absolutely nothing. People will be afraid to take advantage of the fact that they have no contractual written obligations. They might stay put from funk or . . ." And Felix adds: "So it will be either/or once again; it will be now or never." Whatever the effects of the fire, whatever the prognosis for human freedom after the destruction of contractual servitude, Durrell concludes, the freely chosen and willed act of liberation must be made. As The Revolt of Aphrodite ends, Benedicta and Felix are dancing, "dancing in complete happiness and accord," and they will keep on "dancing and dancing, even though Rome burn."

In addition to these principal themes of freedom and servitude, choice and renewal, and inextricably bound up with them, is Durrell's announced intention (in his afterword to Nunquam) to "play about with the notion of culture," "to take a culture reading." The provenance of his ideas should be familiar, he observes: "It's a sort of novel-libretto based on the preface to The Decline of the West. Freud is there too, very much there." And such closure, such thematic resolution as the work may offer is to be found in Durrell's insistence that "the moment of choice is always now" and "for the rest, the fabled two is the human couple, but it is also the basic brick out of which our culture is constructed — mathematics, measure, motion, poetry."

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