[ilds] Selfhood, Durrell, Pater

Charles Sligh Charles-Sligh at utc.edu
Tue Oct 6 08:21:58 PDT 2009

Bruce, Bill, Ilyas, Sumantra, &c.:

Sorry to be absent from the conversation.  I am still working without my MacBook, which has been declared "beyond recovery."  

It is most fortunate that I was also using a Time Capsule, the Apple wireless system that automatically backs up data.   A word to the fallible and unwise--all of us mortals--always back up. . . .

Bruce & Bill--

Am I ducking the difficult and interesting question about Durrell's biographical "self" if I wonder aloud if we can ever find more suggestive questions about self than we see dramatized in the novels and the poetry?

Note that I write "questions about self."  

I am pretty certain that any "answers about self" are subjective and self-generated from our readings.  

No one else need agree with that point.  I come to it after too many years of reading Pater and Durrell.

Again, as I have written here in the past, in my reckoning, Durrell's ideas of "self" and "reality" and "truth" and "perception" have a tradition--or perhaps I should say I perceive him in a tradition?  

Certainly you might find him casting his own charts for those terms in his Key to Modern British Poetry.

But every time I read Pater's conclusion to Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), I am struck with a sense of deja vu--subjective, no doubt--that I already understand what Pater writes because I had read Durrell's relativist writings from the late 1950s before Pater's Epicurean impressionism from the 1860s & 1870s.

Try this Paterian passage--I believe I posted parts of it some years ago in connection with particular passages from the Quartet.  I am particularly interested in Pater's notion of self-in-flux--"that continual vanishing away, that strange perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves."

Of course, Pater, like Durrell, had his own secrets to fuel his evasions and masks.


To regard all things and principles of things as
inconstant modes or fashions has more and more
become the tendency of modern thought. Let us
begin with that which is without—our physical life.
Fix upon it in one of its more exquisite intervals,
the moment, for instance, of delicious recoil from
the flood of water in summer heat. What is the
whole physical life in that moment but a combination
of natural elements to which science gives
their names? But these elements, phosphorus and
lime and delicate fibres, are present not in the
human body alone: we detect them in places most
remote from it. Our physical life is a perpetual
motion of them—the passage of the blood, the
wasting and repairing of the lenses of the eye, the
modification of the tissues of the brain by every ray
of light and sound—processes which science reduces
to simpler and more elementary forces. Like the
elements of which we are composed, the action of
these forces extends beyond us; it rusts iron and
ripens corn. Far out on every side of us these elements
are broadcast, driven by many forces; and birth
and gesture and death and the springing of violets
from the grave are but a few out of ten thousand
resulting combinations. That clear perpetual outline
of face and limb is but an image of ours under
which we group them—a design in a web, the actual
threads of which pass out beyond it. This at least
of flame-like our life has, that it is but the concurrence,
renewed from moment to moment, of forces
parting sooner or later on their ways.

Or if we begin with the inward world of thought
and feeling, the whirlpool is still more rapid, the
flame more eager and devouring. There it is no
longer the gradual darkening of the eye and fading
of colour from the wall,—the movement of the shore
side, where the water flows down indeed, though in
apparent rest,—but the race of the midstream, a drift
of momentary acts of sight and passion and thought.
At first sight experience seems to bury us under a
flood of external objects, pressing upon us with a
sharp importunate reality, calling us out of ourselves
in a thousand forms of action. But when
reflection begins to act upon those objects they are
dissipated under its influence; the cohesive force is
suspended like a trick of magic; each object is loosed
into a group of impressions,—colour, odour, texture,
—in the mind of the observer. And if we continue
to dwell on this world, not of objects in the solidity
with which language invests them, but of impressions
unstable, flickering, inconsistent, which burn and
are extinguished with our consciousness of them, it
contracts still further; the whole scope of observation
is dwarfed to the narrow chamber of the individual
mind. Experience, already reduced to a swarm of
impressions, is ringed round for each one of us by that
thick wall of personality through which no real voice
has ever pierced on its way to us, or from us to that
which we can only conjecture to be without. Every
one of those impressions is the impression of the
individual in his isolation, each mind keeping as a
solitary prisoner its own dream of a world.

Analysis goes a step further still, and tells us that
those impressions of the individual to which, for
each one of us, experience dwindles down, are in
perpetual flight; that each of them is limited by
time, and that as time is infinitely divisible, each
of them is infinitely divisible also; all that is
actual in it being a single moment, gone while we
try to apprehend it, of which it may ever be more
truly said that it has ceased to be than that it
is. To such a tremulous wisp constantly reforming
itself on the stream, to a single sharp impression,
with a sense in it, a relic more or less fleeting,
of such moments gone by, what is real in our life
fines itself down. It is with the movement, the
passage and dissolution of impressions, images,
sensations, that analysis leaves off,—that continual
vanishing away, that strange perpetual weaving
and unweaving of ourselves.

-----Original Message-----
From: Bruce Redwine <bredwine1968 at earthlink.net>
To: ilds at lists.uvic.ca
Date: Mon, 5 Oct 2009 18:27:57 -0700
Subject: Re: [ilds] Selfhood

It's a big problem, and I don't think he ever worked it out, just as  
he didn't work out the Cambridge entrance exams.


Charles L. Sligh
Department of English
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
Charles-Sligh at utc.edu

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