[ilds] A reading of the Avignon Quintet

Jacob Riley jtriley at unca.edu
Tue Sep 22 12:54:10 PDT 2009

This is my thesis proposal and partial reading of two of the novels in the
Avignon Quintet. As I indicate toward the end, I hope to add insights from
Constance. I'm skeptical about my reading and conclusions. My undergraduate
thesis advisor has read Durrell but not the Quintet, so I would like some
input from people who have read the Quintet.

Thesis proposal:

 In *Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, *M.M. Bakhtin writes that within a
Menippean Satire “the issue is precisely the testing of an *idea*, of a *
truth*” (114). But an idea is not tested based on argument or logical
structure. According to Bakhtin, all “extensive modes of argumentation also
f[a]ll away, and there remain[s] essentially only naked ‘ultimate questions’
with an ethical and practical bias” (115). Menippean Satire tests ideas by
looking at the results of its use in a particular context. We use and abuse
the high theory of philosophers and religions to justify our acts in the
world. Frequently we use ideas in conjunction with one another.  In *A Key
to Modern British Poetry*, Durrell compares ideas to cells: “So it is with
ideas, and with the words we use to express them. Existing singly, they also
have the power to modify, and form greater wholes in other contexts”
(Durrell 3). Durrell’s metaphor illustrates that ideas are not stable
entities, but can take on different meanings in different contexts and when
combined with other ideas.

Many characters populate Lawrence Durrell’s *Avignon Quintet. *However,
their discussions center around a few central ideas, making it essential to
distinguish the characters by actions and not personality characteristics.
Each character deals with the central ideas in different ways, complicating
the total effect of the idea. To emphasize that how we use the idea--not the
idea itself--that validates its use, the text indicates several points where
supposedly polar opposite ideas resemble each other. For example, the main
binary positions, a sect of Gnosticism and Freudian psychoanalysis,
respectively reflect spirit and matter. However, there is evidence in the
text to suggest that they resemble each other more than differ. Furthermore,
once these ideas are taken in the context of WWII, they take on new meaning.
For example, the esoteric Gnosticism contains echoes of Nazi metaphysics and

  By looking at how key characters interact with the main ideas in the
text--Freudian psychoanalysis and a spiritual sexual Gnosticism—and by
showing the tensions in the binary oppositions, I hope to show that for
Durrell, ideas are fluid, unstable entities that change as they are put to
use in different historical, cultural, and individual situations. The
corollary to this interpretation is that because ideas are fluid and may
easily turn into their opposites, dogmatic adherence to one idea can limit
one’s interpretation of the world.

Partial Reading:

      The first novel of the quintet, *Monsieur, *begins with the death of
Piers, a friend of the narrator, Bruce. In an attempt to explain the death,
Bruce narrates a shared vacation with his friends Piers, Sylvie, and Toby.
Before arriving there, they move through Alexandria. Bruce describes the
historical condition: “But we were latecomers to the place, modern
scavengers of history upon a scene which had, it seems, long since exhausted
all its historical potentialities” (97). Tacitly agreeing with him, Piers
comments on the weight of history on the scene: “‘Can’t you see how
marvelous history is? The presence of other people whose actions and
thoughts still hang about in the air?’” (99). The travelers move quickly
through Alexandria, realizing that they could scarcely have a lasting
historical effect after the rich historical imprint left on the land.

Thus, they move on towards the fictional oasis known as Macabru. By alluding
to traditional signs of moving from one world to the next, Bruce suggests
that Macabru is innocently outside the trappings of history. The travelers
must cross a river and patiently wait for a “ferryman” to take them from
this “Stygian” situation (101). These elements allude to Charon’s ferry
crossing the river Styx into the underworld. They question their quest as
they move into “the desert and the darkness.” “Somewhat reassured” by
knowing that they were not “guided in circles,” they are still disoriented
(102). As they approach the city, “all one could say is that it was not part
of the desert” (103). Macabru slowly comes into focus: “All was mingled and
muddled by the darkness—distances, volumes, angles, objects. But as we came
to it it looked not unlike another large Arab city, but this time all lit up
against the darkness” (103). Macabru shines out against the dark background,
a glowing mirage in the midst of the dark desert.

While in Macabru, they spend time with the leader of a sect of Gnosticism.
Akkad’s Gnostic theories expounded to Bruce and Piers are much like the
appearance of the city itself, an ideal metaphysics overshadowing the
surrounding darkness. The ‘darkness’ of the world comes from the belief that
God has been usurped by the Prince of Darkness, the lord of the material.
But Akkad withholds a rational exposition of his beliefs until they have
participated in Gnostic ritual. Akkad argues, “Reason is powerless—for this
kind of understanding can only be soundless, wordless, breathless” (122).
Bruce qualifies Akkad’s statement: “I had the impression that something was
being conveyed to me as a sense impression, and not being made rationally
explicit in order not to indulge my natural faculty of ratiocination” (123).
During the ritual, he repeats that the experience was “a deep symbolic
significance of something which by-passed causality” (128).

 Though Bruce says he and his friends “dreamed of a perfect conviction of
the truth of being which would be independent of arguable proof,” they still
listen to Akkad’s explanations. Bruce writes of the theories coherence, “It
was an exposition at once allusively poetical and factual, but knitted
together with persuasive coherence, and formally, intellectually, quite
watertight” (140). Akkad labels all Judeo-Christian religions as slaves to
matter:  “The presiding demon is the spirit of matter, and he springs fully
armed from the head of classical Judaism of which all European religions are
tributaries. The prince is usury, the spirit of gain, the enigmatic power of
capital value embodies in the poetry of gold” (144-45). Allied with world
religions he includes Jewish thinkers like Freud and Marx: “‘The gold bar is
the apotheosis of the human turd. You will from this how radically we poets
of gnosticism part company from these Judaic thinkers’” (146). In contrast
with Freud’s excremental fixation, Akkad says, “ ‘But we have substituted
another term, we have let sperm stand in the place of excrement, for our
world is a world not of repression and original sin but of creation and
relaxation, of love and not doubt’” (146).

Yet Akkad’s actions and appearance put into question the simple binary
between Gnostic/Jew. For all of his discourse on the spirit, he is weighed
down by a world of matter. Akkad is first described as a “merchant-banker,”
who was “equally at home in four capitals and four languages” (107).
Sometimes he looks like “a fattish sluggish pasha, wallowing in riches like
a Turk,” other times “[b]eautifully dressed by London with a buttonhole and
a silk handkerchief” (107). Thus, Akkad is not an acetic hermit, but a
successful businessman who accepts and is at home in a world he claims is

Reactions to Akkad’s theories vary. Piers sister Sylvie is skeptical and
worries about its power over Piers. She says, “Akkad, don’t encourage Piers
to take all this too seriously…He is far too quixotic, far too extreme. It
would be very dangerous for somebody with his type of temperament” (150).
Piers dismisses her, claiming that Akkad describes his “interior mind, my
own character and temperament” and says he “would go to the stake for this,”
illustrating Sylvie’s fears. He is angry at Sylvie for suggesting it is an
“intellectual novelty” (150). Sylvie’s interpretation is convincing; the
actions and habits of Akkad betray that he too may value it as merely an
intellectual novelty. Furthermore, like Akkad, Bruce describes their
leisurely, care-free existence that not only makes theoretical speculation
possible, but also is in opposition to the Gnostic’s supposed denial of the
world of matter. After intensely studying in the library, Piers obtains a
boat and the three of them go on a pleasure cruise. Bruce is shocked by the
abundance of Piers supplies: “you would have thought we were mounting an
expedition to Polynesia to judge by the quantity of the stores which he
ordered” (154). Despite his actions, he still thinks that he has found truth
in the Gnostic studies.

However, an article Piers finds about the Gnostic rituals further questions
the truth of Akkad’s theories. The article explains that the ritual ceremony
“had been mounted by criminals wishing to take advantage of gullible
tourists” (167). After admitting to Piers that the article was planted to
test his belief, he tries to get Piers that in many ways “the fake article
is true” (174). Akkad claims that, in the Gnostic worldview, there is a
“narrow path between reality and illusion” (172-174). He argues we must live
this paradox because our assumptions about reality are based the evil
world’s terms, terms openly defied by the Gnostics.

Like Sylvie, there are other skeptics who criticize the cult’s principles
and rituals. Toby, a friend of Bruce’s, while researching the downfall of
the Templar knights discovers a connection between them and the Gnostic
cults. Against the current interpretation that the Templars were punished by
the Church for the sin of usury, Toby claims that they were “contaminated
with secret Gnostic beliefs which colored their notions of good and evil” (*
Monsieur* 252). Toby does not seem to be against this original form of
Gnosticism that “had been shattered and dispersed by the persecution of the
orthodox” (254). Agreeing with his friend Rob Sutcliffe, he says that
Akkad’s cult is “nothing but a grubby little suicide academy…a sort of
ungraduated colourless [sic] hopelessness about the very fabric and
structure of our thought, our universe” (255).

The Gnostics’ bleak vision of the world leads to desperate symbolic actions.
They escape the world in a peculiar type of suicide. At some point in their
lives, the group sends a message to one of their own telling of how long
they have to prepare for their death, but not how it will happen. Then, a
member kills them at the appointed time. Removing oneself from the world is
the culmination of a primary alienation: “Once you see the truth the way we
see it you simply cannot refuse to accept. You are surrounded, cut off,
severed forever from the world as you have been living in it, lost, sunk,
foundered…” (116). Bruce elaborates upon this truth Gnostic vision:
“acquiring that penetrating vision which could turn us all to masks and
caricatures of reality with names, mere labels; each one of us nevertheless
with an ‘eidolon’ or signature, a disposition, a proclivity visible to the
naked eye of the intuition” (122). Bruce’s explanation resembles the act of
turning life into art through writing. Akkad also uses poetic precedents to
show that Gnostic suicide is “the only poetic act” (144).

Ironically, the novel we have been reading is a novel within a novel by a
fictional author. This meta-fictional turn in the narrative undermines the
seriousness of Akkad’s ideas. In the innocent atmosphere of art and the
oasis of Macabru, one can afford to refuse the world (or pretend to)—there
are no risks involved. The context of Akkad’s thought is the novel, but the
‘real’ ideas consist outside art. Aubrey Blanford, the creator of the novel
*Monsieur* lives in the time leading up to World War II. But what is the
meaning of the Gnostic refusal in a context where Evil is a reality? Can we
afford to renounce responsibility for ethical action in such a world? What
good can come from this ‘poetic act’? As Blanford points out in *Livia, *“How
chimerical the consolations of art against the central horror of death” (5).

In *Livia, *the plot turns toward the activities of Blanford’s ‘real life’
acquaintances, Lord Galen, Felix Chatto, Quatrefages, Livia, and Constance
(Tu). Whereas Akkad acknowledged yet refused the spirit of matter, Lord
Galen refuses to acknowledge the realities of the changing world and naively
follows the spirit of matter. When Galen sees an investment opportunity in
Germany, he, a Jew, naively invests money in the Nazi party. Galen does not
see the cruel meaning behind his business partner’s promise of an
independent Jewish state: “You see Lord Galen, in some ways we are more
Zionist than the Zionists” (126).

Galen also tries to get investors to finance his search for the Templar
treasure. In contrast to Toby’s Gnostic explanation, Lord Galen thinks that
the heresy of the Templars involved a case of hidden treasure. With the help
of Quatrefages and Felix Chatto, Galen hopes to locate it. However,
Quatrefages criticizes Galen’s Jewish fixation on treasure from a Gnostic
point of view, buying into Toby’s explication: “They have reduced they have
reduced the whole thing to a vulgar matter of *fric*, of booty…To defy the
reign of matter as they [Templars] did, to outface the ruling devil—that was
what intrigued me” (161). Blanford dismisses his interpretation as an
influence of the times: “He was…in the presence of a harmless young maniac
who had allowed his head to be turned by the bogus speculations of the
popular mysticism which was at the moment all too fashionable” (162).

            In the background of Galen’s quest, is Europe’s changing
intellectual and political atmosphere:

Europe was fast reaching the end of its genitor-urinary phase in its
literature—and he recognized the approaching impotence it signaled. Soon sex
as a subject would be ventilated completely. An audio-judeo-visual age is
being born…where the pre-eminence of Jewish thought is everywhere apparent,
which explains the jealousy of the Germans (174)

Perhaps sex can no longer be a primary metaphor for a productive and
creative culture after Freud’s insights and in light of Nazi metaphysical
claims on race and birth. Freud’s theories simultaneously de-mystified and
re-mystified sex. Impotent sexual acts meant just as much as the act of
reproduction, re-signifying sex acts. In the context of WWII, Freud comes to
symbolize Jewish thought.

            While hospitalized for an attempted suicide, Blanford’s dream
shows the struggle to keep Freud’s thought alive. While walking among a book
burning demonstration, Blanford, Sutcliffee and Pia see Freud’s sofa hanging
out of a window, about to be engulfed in the flames. Blanford does not see
the meaning of the sofa, but Pia, who has gone through the process of
psychoanalysis, says “‘We must save it’” (201). But they do not know what to
do with it once they have saved it from the flames. Ironically, they must
transport “the holy relic” in a hearse, indicating that the attempt to save
Freud was merely a symbolic gesture precluding his funeral (202). Blanford’s
dream is also a symbolic harbinger of Germany’s assault on Jewish thought.

The complex relationship between Nazi metaphysics, Akkad’s Gnosticism, and
Jewish psychoanalysis is explored in the thoughts and actions of Constance
in the next novel.
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