[ilds] Durrell's Diction

Bruce Redwine bredwine1968 at earthlink.net
Sun May 2 14:51:52 PDT 2010


Good and enlightening exchange.  You pose a lot of questions, so I'll take the easy way out and do an Interlinear.  If this discussion bores anyone, just hit the delete button now and you won't miss a thing.


On May 1, 2010, at 10:21 AM, Charles Sligh wrote:

> 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."

1.  I am not such a big skeptic, and this line of argument makes little sense to me.  While human communication (which is based on intentions) often fails and breaks down, I believe we do know, roughly at least, what others are trying to communicate.  (Otherwise, we'd be in an even bigger mess than we are presently.)  I take literature to be another form of communication.  To treat it simply as an "object" and focus entirely on one's own "impressions" seems to me a big mistake.  I ask, how do we see "an object as it really is," how do we get our impressions, how do we know what we see is what we see, what enables us to see things as discrete things and not as blobs of inchoate matter?  I'm to some extent an idealist and believe, in the Platonic sense, that we have in our brains "universals" that enable us to identify things and objects in the world around us.  So, for me, intentions are a big deal, and they are recoverable.

>>        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.

2.  Not every authorial effort is a success.  This does not seem to me a controversial point.  Hemingway began his career with a great novel called The Sun Also Rises but near the close he wrote the flop Across the River and into the Trees.  Durrell did the same, wrote good and bad, both on the macro and micro levels.  Most great writers have the same problem, e.g., William Faulkner.  Pound thought Finnegans Wake a disaster, and if I could ever get through it, I might agree.  Certain novels you have to read when you're young and have a lot of energy.

> 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.

3.  Yes, but I'm willing to give Durrell a break.

> 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/.

4.  No, I disagree.  When Durrell's writing is overdone, overwrought, or just plain nonsensical, I call it that and don't try to justify it.  Critics should follow Durrell's epigraph in The Black Book, "Where there is veneration even a dog's tooth emits light."

> 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."

5.  Very interesting idea.  I'll have to think about this.  My first "impression," if you will, is that this strategy is too clever, even for M. Durrell.  If he did intend this, then I think he outwitted himself.

> 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"?

6.  Good pun, good follow-up.  I would use this as evidence that M. Durrell/Pursewarden is indeed trying to cover up something and throw his readers and critics off the "scent."  Read past the "clear" and obvious and see what lies behind the mock exhortation.

> 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?

7.  You just have — and well.  Write it up and submit.

> 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.

8.  Occasionally "more revealing about the critic than the work" — yes.  But seeking "a goal which never in fact existed" — no, I disagree.

> 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.

9.  I agree with Nabokov, but he was also an extremely fastidious writer, who took great pains with his style.  As he teacher, he was notorious for being a nitpicker, who demanded from his students great attention to detail.  It's that lack of attention in Durrell's style that Nabokov may have objected to.  Nabokov's and Durrell's work habits were not similar.  All and sundry should recognize that, for varying reasons, Durrell wrote his prose too fast and revised too little.

> 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"?

10.  See no. 6 above.

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