[ilds] The Wise Sage?

Bruce Redwine bredwine1968 at earthlink.net
Mon Jan 4 15:34:45 PST 2010


Let's not resort to the trick of psychoanalyzing the critic in order to justify our points.  Let's stick to discussing the issues at hand.

Durrell was very complicated.  No doubt about that.  Read his work and you see the complexity you describe.  This is one aspect of his greatness.  You're surely better read in Durrell's oeuvre than I am, but I find it interesting that your main evidence for his humility comes from a letter to Alex Comfort, which I hadn't seen before.  It's well said and absolutely true, but my question is — did Durrell express these sentiments in public?  Often?  Maybe he did, and that would be to his credit.  (Is the 1960 statement on "the Artist as a public Opinionator" from a published interview?  You don't cite it.)  I suspect, however, he didn't spend much time disavowing his opinions on various topics.  In public, he assumed another personality, the chuckling sage, who would compromise himself and ingratiate himself on his audience.  Michael Haag has made the comment that Durrell was a habitual liar in these situations, given to all kinds of distortions, and that his veracity was not to be trusted.  I find that telling and rather disturbing, and I don't find it excused by a reference to those famous statements in the Quartet, "Truth is what most contradicts itself" (AQ 216, 277).  That's fine for literature but deplorable for everyday relationships.  Perhaps Durrell couldn't tell the differences between the two?  That's my main point, stated before, often.

Are you suggesting Durrell was a recluse "perpetually" flinging himself "into places where no one could find him?"  That's not my sense of Lawrence Durrell living his last thirty-odd years in Sommières, where he was such a tourist attraction that village taxi drivers would offer free rides to his house.  When it comes to the artist as poseur, I do have a prejudice — I don't like it, beginning with Byron.  Call it American prudishness, but it rubs me the wrong way.  Pound, Hemingway, Miller, and many others certainly fall in that category (but not Joyce, whose self-esteem was gigantic but not overbearing), which puts me in the awkward position of enjoying their works and despising their personalities, while at the same time trying to reconcile the two.  Some writers handle their public selves well — Beckett, Faulkner, Roth, and Shelby Foote, for example.  They downplay their roles.  Durrell didn't.  He exposed himself too much and enjoyed himself too much.  He let his big ego take over, which made him look ridiculous at times.  Look at the BBC film of Durrell's return to Alexandria (1977).  If I remember correctly, it begins with a lie, a voice reciting the melting mirage passage from Balthazar, which LD plagiarized from R. Talbot Kelly, and goes downhill from there, including a scene in a café where LD happily applauds a belly dancer, a parody of LD's own comment about Hollywood turning Justine into "sex and camels" or some such.

Last night I watched again on PBS the recent British production of My Family and Other Animals, and I was once again struck by how unkind brother Gerald was in his depiction of brother Larry, who comes across as a very big pompous ass.  Of course, Gerald Durrell's book is a distorted portrait, full of inaccuracies of those years on Corfu, and the film is undoubtedly a distortion of a distortion.  Yet, taking all that into account, the seeds are there for a personality that would later manifest itself in curious ways.

We both see the same contradiction in Durrell's personality, the discrepancy between his public and private personae, but we account for it in different ways.  You want to attribute it to shyness or the need to protect his privacy, if I understand you correctly.  Perhaps you're right.  This is certainly the charitable approach.  But I see something else at work, something sinister.  I believe it has something to do with his ego, his propensity to lie, his great need to live in his imagination.  All of which sometimes make it hard for him to distinguish truth from fiction, indeed, he often claims that there is no distinction between the two.

Finally, you seem to want to separate the man from his art and appreciate the latter separately:  "I stopped wanting authors to be as good as their works a long time ago."  Can that be done, should it be done, especially when both Miller and Durrell talk about living as a kind of art?  So, Miller says, "They are suffering from the fact that art is not the primary, moving force in their lives" (Big Sur, p. 57).  Or as Durrell himself concludes his Paris Review interview (1960), "You see, I'm not fundamentally interested in the artist.  I use him to try to become a happy man which is a good deal harder for me.  I find art easy.  I find life difficult."  If this is Durrell's program, art as a vehicle for living, if he really means this, then we, as critics, should consider how both enterprises relate to one another.  It's the very old problem in English literature, going all the way back to Beowulf, about the relationship between "words and deeds."  Another big difference between you and me is the weight we give to each of those categories.


On Jan 4, 2010, at 10:11 AM, James Gifford wrote:

> Hi Bruce,
> To be honest, I think picking exclusively one side of this coin is
> reductive -- it means you need to exclude or somehow sweep under the
> rug the other half of a complex situation.  Your feelings about one
> part seem just, but what do you do with the rest of the more
> complicated stuff?  That a human being must always be the same thing
> strikes me as a notion contrary to the entire body of Durrell's works;
> you or I may feel differently, but that doesn't change what's in the
> text.  One side of the author might happily play "sage" while the cash
> register is open after the signing while the other (Other?) would put
> up big signs telling everyone to stay away from his workshop.  Both
> are factually correct, and we've got the photos to prove it!
> While it's not quite on the level of a Pynchon or Salinger, Durrell
> was also remarkably reclusive for most of his life in comparison to
> his colleagues and contemporaries; do you really mean an egomaniac
> addicted to publicity would intentionally fling himself perpetually
> into places where no one could find him?  It's also hard to find a
> Durrell novel that ends conclusively with the author shutting down the
> narrative after a clear completion -- the books usually spiral away
> leaving the reader with problems and questions rather than an author
> clarifying how we should go about solving the political woes of our
> world.  We're consistently led back to individuals or small groups
> standing alone in the face of uncertainty (Pied Piper, Panic Spring,
> Black Book, Prospero's Cell, Justine, Balthazar, Clea, Tunc, Nunquam,
> Monsieur, Livia, etc...).  There's no Sherlock Holmes to tell us the
> answer, nor a Stephen Daedelus.
> As for the Sterne game, I think that's obviously going on in the
> texts.  Think about what /Monsieur/ does to our trust in texts
> (something straight from Wilde, IMO).  That game is already afoot in
> /Panic Spring/.  But, perhaps most obviously, the few genuinely
> critical texts we have from Durrell strongly encourage the reader to
> distrust the author's authority.  If you've not read it, "No Clue to
> Living" is a good case in point.  The Heraldic Universe letters and
> article are also much the same.
> Durrell once wrote to Alex Comfort "I really cannot assist with
> pronunciamentos  about the ‘role of the artist’ or ‘apocalyptic
> attitudes’: it’s because what I have to say about poetry only goes for
> me personally; and I avoid dread [sic] pronouncing about the faculty
> in general. This is the only proviso."  In 1960, at the height of his
> fame and influence, Durrell make a pretty clear statement: "One
> supposes that the Artist as a public Opinionator only grew up with the
> social conscience—with Dickens, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky…. [T]here come
> hundreds of letters asking him to take up public positions on every
> conceivable matter from the fate of Irish horses or homosexuals to the
> rights and wrongs of nuclear warfare and theosophy …. But it is very
> doubtful whether he has anything to say which could be more original
> than the other pronouncements by public figures, for apart from his
> art he is just an ordinary fellow like everyone else."  (Notably, the
> horses, homosexuals, bombs, and Blavatsky are all real letters to
> him).
> But, your main point seems to be that
>> If you don't want to appear like a literary sage, you don't talk
>> like one and expect your audience to see the joke.
> I'm quite sure that at times he did in fact want to "appear" like one,
> especially depending on the audience members; at others he just as
> clearly did not.  Denying that contradiction is problematic for me.
> Bafflegab gets someone off your back or puts up a good show, and what
> it doesn't do is say what you're actually up to.  Durrell openly
> opposed the artist as public opinionator, and in a genuine sense, I
> think that's a factor in his avoidance of direct social commentary
> apart from irony and satire.
> So, what interests me is, 1) why do we have two contradictory sides to
> Durrell's personality and aesthetic vision here that both make
> appearances in his texts, and 2) if not for the sake of obfuscation,
> why did Durrell turn to bafflegab and posing on subjects for which he
> had clear and detailed opinions?  I suspect a sense of privacy,
> shyness from the limelight, and not showing what he's actually up to
> are big factors -- free wine and more coins in the purse from book
> sales are also very likely contributors...  I'm not above singing for
> my supper either, and each of us is filled with contradictions.
> Bruce -- if you're so opposed to the author posing, does that mean you
> were once caught up in that pose?  After all, Durrell's posturing for
> photos is pretty mild in comparison to most authors of his generation,
> including the good ones, so I'm not sure where your vehemence
> originates.  How do you respond to Woolf, Joyce, or Pound (the
> greatest poser of them all)?  I doubt I would have liked any of them,
> but their works are still very fine indeed.  I stopped wanting authors
> to be as good as their works a long time ago.
> As for the ruse of leaving the reader on his own resources, those are
> Durrell's words from /Balthazar/ in which Pursewarden explains the
> blank page -- it's not mine.  I personally find Durrell's texts
> replete with irony, a Modernist inheritance perhaps.
> Cheers,
> James
> 2010/1/3 Bruce Redwine <bredwine1968 at earthlink.net>:
>> James,
>> Deep question about Durrell's intentions and psychology, which has been previously bandied about in various contexts.  If I may cite myself, back on 28 October 2009, I gave my opinion about Durrell's public persona, how he invites speculation about himself and the relationship between his public and private selves.  I still hold that position, namely, that Durrell was an egomaniac and perhaps addicted to publicity in a way similar to being an alcoholic, which he was.  I find it hard to accept that Durrell ever "refus[ed] to play the part of the wise sage."  I know, you may argue that during all those interviews old LD was chuckling and snickering at the gullibility of his interviewers, that he really didn't intend to be taken seriously, that he was just playing the Laurence Sterne game and having a rollicking good time being another Tristram Shandy or his own Pursewarden talking to "Brother Ass," or, finally, that his ruse was some grand strategy to get his listeners "to stand on their own two feet."  Well, I don't buy this.  These levels of irony works for some, but not for me.  I take the idea of the chuckling sage as Durrell's excuse for doing what he did.  I'm rather simpleminded in this regard.  If you don't want to appear like a literary sage, you don't talk like one and expect your audience to see the joke.
>> Bruce
>> On Jan 3, 2010, at 4:25 PM, James Gifford wrote:
>>> I'm curious if there's a way to reconcile Durrell's demonstrable
>>> willingness to squeeze every penny and ounce of sympathy from fans
>>> while at the same time refusing to play the part of the wise sage?
>>> I suppose, for instance, one could compare any of his public readings
>>> (I have a recording of one in NY) or indulgences in bafflegab during
>>> interviews versus his consideration of the role of the artist in any
>>> of the published versions of "No Clue to Living."  In short, my
>>> suspicion is that the serious LD would "hate" being idolized or looked
>>> to for answers (though he'd likely respect the enthusiastic indulgence
>>> in aesthetic pleasure), but the guy looking for a buck and a free
>>> drink would love idolatry when it was convenient and would indulge so
>>> long as the spirits flowed...
>>> In other words, at his serious moments, I see an author in Durrell's
>>> works that refuses to grant resolution or answers to the reader,
>>> because we should rely on our own resources, and if arts shows us
>>> anything (without telling), it's that.  In the whimsical moments, I
>>> also see an author gleefully spreading pure bunk because it will
>>> likely draw in readers who refuse to stand on their own two feet.  I
>>> like to think the most successful moments are when the latter runs
>>> smack into the former, and we're hopefully struck enough to rethink
>>> our willingness to grant authority to the author.
>>> Best to all in the New Year!  My first resolution was to spend less
>>> time on administration, which hopefully will mean actually responding
>>> to some of the interesting posts on here.
>>> Cheers,
>>> James
>>> 2010/1/3 Bruce Redwine <bredwine1968 at earthlink.net>:
>>>> Marc, I would have to say LD was never above being pretentious and awkward.  Happy New Year!
>>>> Bruce
>>>> On Jan 3, 2010, at 10:01 AM, Marc Piel wrote:
>>>>> Hi Bruce, Happpy New Year.
>>>>> I guess we don't agree!
>>>>> That text was pretentious and awkward; not at all LD style!
>>>>> BR
>>>>> Marc
>>>>> Bruce Redwine a écrit :
>>>>>> To the contrary, Marc, I think LD would have enjoyed RW's text, which seems indebted to /The Black Book./  Did the old guy ever discourage his fans?
>>>>>> Bruce
>>>>>> On Jan 3, 2010, at 5:41 AM, Marc Piel wrote:
>>>>>>> Please excuse me I should not have used the word
>>>>>>> "hate", what I meant was that I felt that
>>>>>>> "Durrell" would not have liked that text about
>>>>>>> LD...    sorry.
>>>>>>> Marc
>>>>>>> Marc Piel a écrit :
>>>>>>>> After reading your post I feel sure that "Durrell"
>>>>>>>> as you call him, would hate you.
>>>>>>>> Nothing personal, just....
>>>>>>>> RW HEDGES a écrit :
>>>>>>>>> Durrell is an island, that makes sense. New-york and the aftermath
>>>>>>>>> of Paris and London of hard stone and flesh as solid as a broad splayed
>>>>>>>>> shit heap. Chance found me Durrell; floating as light and orange as a
>>>>>>>>> hint of honey and rum in a grape half sqweezed. Marine venus is exactly
>>>>>>>>> the pin point of this moment Bruce pointed out. I have been reading it
>>>>>>>>> as if I was sipping a fine drink. Yet I normally devour the drink or
>>>>>>>>> book far too quickly. I really think that the marine venus is Prosperos
>>>>>>>>> amendment. And that Durrell left Islomania is no surprise. He had his
>>>>>>>>> fill and we can either talk or live it in admiration.
>>>>>>>>> I expect to end up on an island myself if lucky, but what charcters
>>>>>>>>> rise from his books, those places! Cyprus, Corfu and Rhodes....Amazing.
>>>>>>>>> No-one can do more for the earthy sunrise of a Greek morning. I love
>>>>>>>>> him. Simply love him. I will never make a Durrell get together but I
>>>>>>>>> think I love him more each day. Thats because I only care about his
>>>>>>>>> tables and sunsets and holy men and village idiots. Those and the women
>>>>>>>>> he loves to raise from the depths of the clear blue. I love Durrell and
>>>>>>>>> I wear a badge; "Durrell". Cheers David.+++

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