[ilds] "a country of the mind"

Charles Sligh Charles-Sligh at utc.edu
Sat Aug 15 13:05:32 PDT 2009

Terry Eagleton wrote:
>         "Durrell once described himself as a "supreme trickster", and
>         this is surely one reason why his celebrity proved so
>         shortlived. The glittering surface of his prose conceals an
>         emotional anaesthesia, for which the portentously "profound"
>         reflections of the Quartet are meant to compensate. Like many
>         poets, his verbal sensitivity is in inverse proportion *to
>         _real_ human sympathy, a sublimated _selfishness_ evident in
>         his life as much as his work**. What was _real_ was what he
>         could exoticise, convert to mythological archetype or
>         high-sounding platitude. His Alexandria is _a country of the
>         mind_, attractive precisely because its cultural and ethnic
>         mix makes it at once nowhere and everywhere. I*f he plundered
>         Egypt for its symbolic capital, he also groused about its
>         "stinking inhabitants".
And Sumantra then asked:
>         George Steiner upheld the rich prose of Durrell as a relief
>         from the flat prose of English fiction which had set in by the
>         1950s. But it seems to me that some critics (including perhaps
>         Eagleton) see this quality of Durrell as filling the need of a
>         particular period. What happens if you judge the novels in
>         critical terms other than those of the quality of prose?
Well, I would first refuse to yield the ground to Eagleton.  Why let him 
set the rules by which we take our pleasure?

I would remind Eagleton that there are other ways to read, other ways to 
enjoy the world, other values beyond his particular sort of late Marxism.

I would ask Eagleton:

            * Why should "real human sympathy" or anything else "real"
              determine the pleasure or quality of fiction, art, or
            * Why should something "selfish"--even something /supremely/
              self-centered, sublimated or intentional--be viewed as
              less worthy?
            * What precisely is negative about projecting "a country of
              the mind"? 
            * Why promote this touchstone test of "the real"?  Try using
              that test in Shakespeare's Elsinore, Coleridge's Xanadu,
              Brontës' Wuthering Heights, Carroll's Wonderland,
              Dunsany's Pegana, Cabell's Poictesme, or even the
              different kinds of "Dublin" appearing in the late middle
              chapters of Joyce's /Ulysses/.
            * And what is this talk about "a sublimated selfishness
              evident in his life as much as his work"? / /There
              Eagleton really voices the police or the social worker,
              trying to come around knocking at the house and correct
              Durrell's biography. 

Eagleton is /wrong/ in assuming that his points about Durrell's writing 
are somehow damning--that these points somehow expose Durrell's offenses 
against an already agreed notion of what we can and cannot do with 
literature.    Really, there is no such formula or checklist.


Charles L. Sligh
Assistant Professor
Department of English
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
charles-sligh at utc.edu

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