[ilds] Baroque vs. Attic

Bruce Redwine bredwine1968 at earthlink.net
Sun May 2 12:04:23 PDT 2010


Sumantra,

Thanks for bringing to our attention George Steiner, one of my favorite critics.  He neatly sums up Durrell's prose, or one aspect of his prose, and puts it in historical perspective.  I may add that old LD is not always "baroque."  When he wants to, he can be quite "clean" and pithy, as in the potboilers, The Dark Labyrinth and Sicilian Carousel.  His prose, however, tends towards the ornate, but that's not what I see in the poetry, which is often abrupt and cryptic.  I'm sometimes reminded of the contemporary Canadian poet, Anne Carson, who is a trained classicist and translator of Sappho, among others.  So, Durrell's styles are mixed, shifting between the Attic and the Baroque.   What Steiner doesn't mention (here at least) is that this tension is a very old one, at least Classical in origin:  the Senecan vs. the Circeronian.  Durrell must have been aware of the conflict, since he was well read in the English Renaissance (Bacon vs. Lyly) and was surely familiar with Montaigne (a Senecan).  A good book on the subject:  Morris W. Croll's "Attic" and Baroque Prose Style:  The Anti-Ciceronian Movement (Princeton, 1969).  Thanks again for the contribution and refocusing the discussion.


Bruce


On May 2, 2010, at 12:22 AM, Sumantra Nag wrote:

> May I refer to the whole of the discussion reproduced below (Messages 10-14) in order to express my enthusiasm about a study of Durrell's diction. The exchange between Charles and Bruce is a fascinating foray into such an exercise. I had once posted an extract from George Steiners' description of the prose in The Alexandria Quartet as Baroque in its specific qualities, but of course the reference to Shakespeare is significant - even as a lay reader I know of Lawrence Durrell's literary absorption with the Elizabethans.
>  
> I think such a study would be fascinating for a reader but I agree that it would be very hard and difficult work for the scholar carrying out the study. I certainly see the point in the observation made by Bruce in response to Charles:
>  
> "I also agree that such a task requires "maturity," along with devotion and acumen, I might add.   I recommend you for the job."
>  
> I don't know if it helps to extend this discussion by reproducing George Steiner's assessment of Durrell's prose:
>  
> "But this does not mean that this jeweled and coruscated style springs full-armed from Durrell's personal gift. He stands in a great tradition of baroque prose. In the seventeenth century, Sir Thomas Browne built sentences into lofty arches and made words ring like sonorous bells. Robert Burton, in his Anatomy of Melancholy, used the same principal device as Durrell: richness through accumulation, the marshaling of nouns and epithets into great catalogues among which the eye roves in antiquarian delight. The feverish, clarion-sounding prose of De Quincey is a direct ancestor to that of Justine. And more recently, there is the example of Conrad. In the later parts of Lord Jim and throughout The Rescue, Conrad uses words with the sumptuous exuberance of a jeweler showing off his rarest stones. Here also, language falls upon the reader's senses like brocade. 
> 
> "This baroque ideal of narrative style is, at present, in disfavor. The modern ear has been trained to the harsh, impoverished cadence and vocabulary of Hemingway. Reacting against the excesses of Victorian manner, the modern writer has made a cult of simplicity. He refines common speech but preserves its essential drabness. When comparing a page from the Alexandria novels to the practice of Hemingway or C. P. Snow or Graham Greene, one is setting a gold-spun and jeweled Byzantine mosaic next to a black-and-white photograph. One cannot judge the one by the other. But that does not signify that Durrell is a decadent show-off or that his conception of English prose is erroneous. We may be grateful that Hemingway and his innumerable imitators have made the language colder and more astringent and that they have brought back into fiction the virtue of plain force. But they have done so at a price. Contemporary English usage is incredibly thin and unimaginative. The style of politics and factual communication verges on the illiterate. Having far fewer words at our reach than had the educated man of the seventeenth and even of the late nineteenth century, we say less or say it with a blurred vagueness. Indeed, the twentieth century has seen a great retreat from the power of the word. The main energies of the mind seem directed toward other modes of 'language,' toward the notation of music and the symbol-world of mathematics. Whether in its advertisements, its comic-books, or its television, our culture lives by the picture rather than the word. Hence a writer like Durrell, with his Shakespearean and Joycean delight in the sheer abundance and sensuous variety of speech, may strike one as mannered or precious. But the fault lies with our impoverished sensibility." 
> 
> -- George Steiner, "Lawrence Durrell I: The Baroque Novel" (from Critical Essays on Lawrence Durrell) 
> The following closing sentence seems to echo some of the discussions berween Bruce and Charles:
>  
> "Hence a writer like Durrell, with his Shakespearean and Joycean delight in the sheer abundance and sensuous variety of speech, may strike one as mannered or precious. But the fault lies with our impoverished sensibility."
>  
> Sumantra
>  
> --------------------------------------
> > Message: 10
> > Date: Sat, 01 May 2010 13:21:51 -0400
> > From: Charles Sligh <Charles-Sligh at utc.edu>
> > Subject: Re: [ilds] Durrell's Diction
> > To: Bruce Redwine <bredwine1968 at earthlink.net>, "ilds at lists.uvic.ca"
> > <ilds at lists.uvic.ca>
> > Message-ID: <4BDC632F.3050300 at utc.edu>
> > Content-Type: text/plain; charset=ISO-8859-1; format=flowed
> > 
> > Bruce Redwine wrote:
> >> I would go beyond the level of intention, however.  That is, beyond what you refer to as "reminding their audiences about how very little knowing is possible." 
> > I agree. I usually avoid argument by intention, and perhaps I made my 
> > expression of the point unclear by my figure, substituting "Shakespeare" 
> > and "Durrell" for "the works of Shakespeare" and "the works of Durrell." 
> > 
> > To put it in different terms, I have no idea what either Shakespeare or 
> > Durrell truly meant or thought when they set out to right.  By contrast, 
> > I can track what experiences and impressions I have while reading the 
> > writings of Shakespeare and Durrell, the evidence that they left behind. 
> > 
> > I follow Pater and Durrell in this point: 
> > 
> >        "'To see the object as in itself it really is,' has been justly
> >        said to be the aim of all true criticism whatever, and in
> >        aesthetic criticism the first step towards seeing one's object
> >        as it really is, is to know one's own impression as it really
> >        is, to discriminate it, to realise it distinctly." 
> > 
> > The "object" itself is difficult.  The experience of the object, the 
> > filter of streaming sensory data running back and forth between the 
> > viewer and the object, must be carefully monitored.  In essence, I think 
> > that Durrell's style is grounded in this sort of realization.  
> > Substitute Pater's terms with Durrell's terms, and you might find the 
> > plot of /The Alexandria Quartet/ writ small:  "In /The Alexandria 
> > Quartet/, the first step towards seeing Justine as she really is, is to 
> > know one's own impression of Justine as it really is, to discriminate 
> > one's impression of her, to realise one's impression of Justine distinctly."
> > 
> >>         I would also point out where Durrell fails and not assume that every example of his style is a success.  
> > 
> > But how could Durrell's prose style ever be otherwise than what it is?  
> > He wrote what he wrote, no matter our wishes.
> > 
> > I suppose that you are arguing from a Classical or Idealist position.  
> > In the Classical position, a standard of excellence is created from the 
> > tradition or canon of writing that has gone before.  Durrell measured 
> > against Flaubert or Joyce or some such touchstone.  Arnold holds to that 
> > method in the nineteenth-century, and Arnold's work is fascinating.
> > 
> > Setting aside the Classical standard and shifting to the Idealist 
> > position, the critic imagines how in Platonic terms there is somewhere 
> > in the aether a perfected /Alexandria Quartet/ and how the written and 
> > published earthbound instance of /The Alexandria Quartet/ somehow falls 
> > short of and fails to achieve the fullness of what one might call /The 
> > Ideal Alexandria Quartet/.  There may be a bit of Gnostic thought latent 
> > in this line of criticism.  The Idealist critic suspects the writer of 
> > falling short, in effect catching out the author as Demiurge, thinking 
> > of the author as a false demigod creating something that should have 
> > been created in other terms or never should have been created. 
> > 
> > I fancy Durrell's works already carry that Gnostic realization within 
> > them, setting ready traps for Idealist critics.  After all, the 
> > "sancing-bell" passage occurs right at the opening of "My Conversations 
> > with Brother Ass."  Bruce, you write about how
> > 
> >>          I sense something below that driving the man on, and I don't know what it is.  
> > 
> > And that reminds me uncannily of Pursewarden regarding Darley, 
> > contemplating Darley's suspicions of his fellow writer, writing that
> > 
> >>         In me he scents an enigma, something crying out for the
> >>         probe.  ("But Brother Ass I am as clear as a bell--a sancing
> >>         bell!  The problem is there, here, nowhere!")
> >>
> > 
> > Bruce's "sense" for Darley's "scent"--what do we "sance"? 
> > 
> > Perhaps Billy gave us more than he know when he first rang up with his 
> > query about Pursewarden's ironic bell.  To what is Durrell summoning you? 
> > 
> > The strange High Church allusion, the parentheses and the quotation 
> > marks, this "writer's notebook" cropping up suddenly within a novel 
> > filled with other extracts from notebooks--now that is a style worth 
> > reckoning, a style full of infinite jest!  Truly, "My Conversations with 
> > Brother Ass" is Durrell's Grave Digger scene, with Darley playing Hamlet 
> > to the dead Pursewarden's Yorick, and with all of us readers in the 
> > aftertime acting in the same role to the dead Lawrence Durrell.  Who can 
> > say?
> > 
> > I can understand the Classical and Idealist approaches, but I think they 
> > are valid only if the critic uses them with an honest admission that he 
> > seeks a goal which never in fact existed--a /tertium quid, /dreams of 
> > the critic's own making, revealing more about the critic than the work 
> > at hand.  I would label them subjunctive endeavors.  That in no way 
> > means they do not hold value.  They make for great reading. 
> > 
> > By contrast, being a plain and plodding sort fellow, I start out by 
> > holding to the historian's method, the bibliographer's method.  
> > Durrell's books exist as data.  Durrell's prose is what is, no matter 
> > how much we imagine how it might have been, could have been, should have 
> > been, or wish it to have been something other than what it is.  Here I 
> > think of Nabokov, who told his students that
> > 
> >>         In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is
> >>         nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it
> >>         comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly
> >>         collected. If one begins with generalization, one begins at
> >>         the wrong end and travels away from the book before one has
> >>         started to understand it.
> > 
> > With that understood, I then move to a Durrellian (or Paterian) position 
> > and ask, "What do I experience when I analyze the particularities of 
> > this prose style, with all its quirks and curves?  This prose style 
> > being just so and not other, what does it make me feel or think, and how 
> > are those things different from my experience of other prose styles?"
> > 
> > So what about the "sancing bell"?  
> > 
> > C&c.
> > 
> > --
> > ********************************************
> > Charles L. Sligh
> > Assistant Professor
> > Department of English
> > University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
> > charles-sligh at utc.edu
> > ********************************************
> > 
> > 
> > 
> > ------------------------------
> > 
> > Message: 11
> > Date: Sat, 1 May 2010 08:51:26 -0700
> > From: Bruce Redwine <bredwine1968 at earthlink.net>
> > Subject: Re: [ilds] Durrell's Diction
> > To: Charles-Sligh at utc.edu, ilds at lists.uvic.ca
> > Cc: Bruce Redwine <bredwine1968 at earthlink.net>
> > Message-ID: <26AF825F-1BB6-4C13-B972-6D94CE6551B3 at earthlink.net>
> > Content-Type: text/plain; charset=us-ascii
> > 
> > Charles,
> > 
> > I agree.  There's a need for a serious study of Durrell's stylistics, and the working assumption should be to take him on his own terms and not blindly apply normative or proscriptive criteria.  I would go beyond the level of intention, however.  That is, beyond what you refer to as "reminding their audiences about how very little knowing is possible."  I sense something below that driving the man on, and I don't know what it is.  I would also point out where Durrell fails and not assume that every example of his style is a success.  Clearly, I'm talking about more than "style" here; I'm using it in the sense that "the style is the man."  Disposition might be a better word.  Taking Durrell on his own terms does not mean finding an excuse for everything he does.  I like to think failure is a part of success.  I also agree that such a task requires "maturity," along with devotion and acumen, I might add.   I recommend you for the job.
> > 
> > 
> > Bruce
> > 
> > 
> > On May 1, 2010, at 7:25 AM, Charles Sligh wrote:
> > 
> >> 
> >>> Now, Durrell's chosen vocabulary may simply be part and parcel of his 
> >>> Romantic disposition, his infatuation with the exotic, somewhat like 
> >>> Poe's.  Maybe.  I suspect, however, that something else is going on, 
> >>> something rooted in his psyche, if you will.  If I had to liken 
> >>> Durrell's love of words to anyone's, it would be to Shakespeare's, 
> >>> whom the English Romantics valued above all others.  This discussion 
> >>> is, of course, just speculation.  What is needed is an examination of 
> >>> the data, and by that I mean an extensive lexical study of Durrell's 
> >>> vocabulary and usage throughout his oeuvre.  Some enterprising 
> >>> graduate student should take this up.  It would involve a lot of work.
> >>> 
> >> The project would be important, no doubt.  Perhaps the most necessary 
> >> element would be the kind of maturity of thought required to analyze 
> >> "Durrell's prose style for Durrell's prose style's sake."
> >> 
> >> That is to say, the scholar could certainly analyze and place Durrell's 
> >> style in relation to the long history of English prose stylists.  But to 
> >> begin the task with the working assumption that Durrell's style is 
> >> somehow aberrant or ineffective would do little than to reinforce the 
> >> status quo--bosh and Grundyism of the narrowest provincial sort.  
> >> 
> >> You mention Poe.  Most critics fail with Poe because they cannot enter 
> >> his weird stylistics with the Negative Capability that style requires.  
> >> Not stopping to mark their own shortcoming as readers with a very 
> >> limited notion of literature, such critics would take a clipboard to his 
> >> language, checking off penalty marks for archaism and artifice that 
> >> extrudes and layers itself like coral.  Artifice is not wrong.  Weird is 
> >> not wrong.  Both artifice and weirdness are tools of estrangement, 
> >> sometimes calculated, sometimes expressive.  Cf. Freud's /unheimlich/. 
> >> 
> >> Shakespeare is right on as a comparison, Bruce, because Shakespeare 
> >> seems to share Durrell's skepticism about language's ability to catch 
> >> the Thing (cf. /Hamlet/).  Shakespeare also seems to share Durrell's 
> >> conviction that we have very little else to turn but these words, words, 
> >> words.  In response to that realization, Durrell and Shakespeare do not 
> >> take the stylistic turn of Beckett, into withdrawal, but turn in another 
> >> direction--to densities of artifice and layered illusion, reminding 
> >> their audiences about how very little knowing is possible.  If one must 
> >> have a moral, I suppose that is a sort of darkling moral of the Yorick 
> >> sort. . . .
> >> 
> >> Durrell's style is quite remarkably what it is.  Durrell's style is a 
> >> serious challenge.  If the scholar comes to it with a moralist, 
> >> corrective, progressive sensibility--the sort of reader who desires to 
> >> gain a vantage on to the "true" world by means of a supposedly "clear," 
> >> correct prose style--that scholar will go very wrong, very early.  Very 
> >> few students coming up today have the maturity, the training, and the 
> >> independence of mind to carry out such an analysis, I am afraid.  
> >> 
> >> But good luck to the ones who try!
> >> 
> >> C&c.
> >> 
> >> -- 
> >> ********************************************
> >> Charles L. Sligh
> >> Assistant Professor
> >> Department of English
> >> University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
> >> charles-sligh at utc.edu
> >> ********************************************
> > ------------------------------
> > 
> > Message: 12
> > Date: Sat, 1 May 2010 10:46:36 -0500
> > From: William Apt <billyapt at gmail.com>
> > Subject: Re: [ilds] Durrell's Diction
> > To: Charles-Sligh at utc.edu, ilds at lists.uvic.ca
> > Message-ID:
> > <g2i17a8d5c41005010846k5e9a0c39hbddcf9188a485ae8 at mail.gmail.com>
> > Content-Type: text/plain; charset="iso-8859-1"
> > 
> > Wonderful discussion!
> > On Sat, May 1, 2010 at 9:25 AM, Charles Sligh <Charles-Sligh at utc.edu> wrote:
> > 
> >>
> >> > Now, Durrell's chosen vocabulary may simply be part and parcel of his
> >> > Romantic disposition, his infatuation with the exotic, somewhat like
> >> > Poe's.  Maybe.  I suspect, however, that something else is going on,
> >> > something rooted in his psyche, if you will.  If I had to liken
> >> > Durrell's love of words to anyone's, it would be to Shakespeare's,
> >> > whom the English Romantics valued above all others.  This discussion
> >> > is, of course, just speculation.  What is needed is an examination of
> >> > the data, and by that I mean an extensive lexical study of Durrell's
> >> > vocabulary and usage throughout his oeuvre.  Some enterprising
> >> > graduate student should take this up.  It would involve a lot of work.
> >> >
> >> The project would be important, no doubt.  Perhaps the most necessary
> >> element would be the kind of maturity of thought required to analyze
> >> "Durrell's prose style for Durrell's prose style's sake."
> >>
> >> That is to say, the scholar could certainly analyze and place Durrell's
> >> style in relation to the long history of English prose stylists.  But to
> >> begin the task with the working assumption that Durrell's style is
> >> somehow aberrant or ineffective would do little than to reinforce the
> >> status quo--bosh and Grundyism of the narrowest provincial sort.
> >>
> >> You mention Poe.  Most critics fail with Poe because they cannot enter
> >> his weird stylistics with the Negative Capability that style requires.
> >> Not stopping to mark their own shortcoming as readers with a very
> >> limited notion of literature, such critics would take a clipboard to his
> >> language, checking off penalty marks for archaism and artifice that
> >> extrudes and layers itself like coral.  Artifice is not wrong.  Weird is
> >> not wrong.  Both artifice and weirdness are tools of estrangement,
> >> sometimes calculated, sometimes expressive.  Cf. Freud's /unheimlich/.
> >>
> >> Shakespeare is right on as a comparison, Bruce, because Shakespeare
> >> seems to share Durrell's skepticism about language's ability to catch
> >> the Thing (cf. /Hamlet/).  Shakespeare also seems to share Durrell's
> >> conviction that we have very little else to turn but these words, words,
> >> words.  In response to that realization, Durrell and Shakespeare do not
> >> take the stylistic turn of Beckett, into withdrawal, but turn in another
> >> direction--to densities of artifice and layered illusion, reminding
> >> their audiences about how very little knowing is possible.  If one must
> >> have a moral, I suppose that is a sort of darkling moral of the Yorick
> >> sort. . . .
> >>
> >> Durrell's style is quite remarkably what it is.  Durrell's style is a
> >> serious challenge.  If the scholar comes to it with a moralist,
> >> corrective, progressive sensibility--the sort of reader who desires to
> >> gain a vantage on to the "true" world by means of a supposedly "clear,"
> >> correct prose style--that scholar will go very wrong, very early.  Very
> >> few students coming up today have the maturity, the training, and the
> >> independence of mind to carry out such an analysis, I am afraid.
> >>
> >> But good luck to the ones who try!
> >>
> >> C&c.
> >>
> >> --
> >> ********************************************
> >> Charles L. Sligh
> >> Assistant Professor
> >> Department of English
> >> University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
> >> charles-sligh at utc.edu
> >> ********************************************
> >>
> >> _______________________________________________
> > WILLIAM APT
> > Attorney at Law
> > 7004 Bee Cave Rd, Bldg 1,
> > Ste 205
> > Austin TX 78746
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> > ------------------------------
> > 
> > Message: 13
> > Date: Sat, 1 May 2010 12:38:50 -0400 (EDT)
> > From: gkoger at mindspring.com
> > Subject: Re: [ilds] Durrell's Diction
> > To: ilds at lists.uvic.ca
> > Message-ID:
> > <2850198.1272731930649.JavaMail.root at elwamui-ovcar.atl.sa.earthlink.net>
> > 
> > Content-Type: text/plain; charset=UTF-8
> > 
> > In regard to Durrell's diction, it's worth remembering that Edmund Wilson once complained about Vladimir Nabokov's "addiction to rare and unfamiliar words." Nabokov's response was that he might have "rare and unfamiliar things to convey."
> > 
> > Grove
> > ------------------------------
> > 
> > Message: 14
> > Date: Sat, 01 May 2010 13:32:23 -0400
> > From: Charles Sligh <Charles-Sligh at utc.edu>
> > Subject: Re: [ilds] Durrell's Diction
> > To: gkoger at mindspring.com, ilds at lists.uvic.ca
> > Message-ID: <4BDC65A7.8070202 at utc.edu>
> > Content-Type: text/plain; charset=ISO-8859-1; format=flowed
> > 
> > gkoger at mindspring.com wrote:
> >> In regard to Durrell's diction, it's worth remembering that Edmund Wilson once complained about Vladimir Nabokov's "addiction to rare and unfamiliar words." Nabokov's response was that he might have "rare and unfamiliar things to convey."
> >>
> >>   
> > Very witty.  Very wise. 
> > 
> > Wilson was a great critic, but his terms suppose a corrective position, 
> > saying "these are the better words; those words should not be 
> > used"--marking Nabokov as if Nabokov set out to write term papers.   
> > 
> > Again, that approach to reading is not without a certain kind of 
> > interest, but only if we admit the approach reveals far more about 
> > Wilson's imagination, tastes, and limits than the imagination, tastes, 
> > and limits of Nabokov.
> > 
> > Certainly Nabokov could be just as testy and a stickler a la Flaubert.  
> > That is why Nabokov's /Lectures on Literature/ are most memorable as 
> > performances, the record of how a great mind took up a score or script 
> > written by Dickens or Flaubert or Kafka and played them out 
> > magnificently before an audience in bobby-socks and poodle skirts. 
> > 
> > C&c.
> > 
> > -- 
> > ********************************************
> > Charles L. Sligh
> > Assistant Professor
> > Department of English
> > University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
> > charles-sligh at utc.edu
> > ********************************************
> _______________________________________________
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