[ilds] rope tricks & "the completeness of falsehood"

Charles Sligh Charles-Sligh at utc.edu
Sat Jun 19 13:31:11 PDT 2010

>  In the same essay, LD also writes about his early experiences in 
> India, "I have seen the Rope Trick when I was ten . . . My first 
> language was Hindi" (p. 59).  The "Indian Rope Trick" is one of the 
> great hoaxes of recent times, as Peter Lamont exposes in /The Rise of 
> the Indian Rope Trick:  How a Spectacular Hoax Became History/ (2004). 
>  The "rope trick" never existed, but Durrell claims he saw it. 

I think that this approach carries out a literal, agonistic, and 
somewhat selective reading of Durrell's highly-nuanced storytelling.

As with most documents, consideration of context aids in interpretation. 

First of all, "From the Elephant's Back" was a spoken-word performance, 
with the later texts "amended and slightly expanded" from "a lecture 
first given in French at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, April 1, 1981 
(/Poetry London/ 1). 

In his opening remarks, Durrell tells his audience that his purpose was 
to "discuss the theory and the practice of fiction in relation to 
myself."  He also acknowledged his audience's Gallic subtlety, 
explaining how he thought that French-speakers would be better suited 
"to make fine distinctions" about his speech (/Poetry London/ 1). 

Sympathetic Anglophonic reader that I am, I am assuming that one 
important "fine distinction" would be to observe that the man invited to 
speak was "Lawrence Durrell," a writer who respected his reader's 
intelligence sufficiently never to claim that he was not an entertainer, 
an often contradictory dissembler, a teller of tall tales.

Then the important paragraph:

>         I would prefer to present my case in terms of biography, for
>         my thinking is coloured by
>         the fact that I am a colonial, an Anglo-Indian, born into that
>         strange world of which the only
>         great poem is the novel /Kim/ by Kipling. I was brought up in
>         its shadow, and like its author I
>         was sent to England to be educated. The juxtaposition of the
>         two types of consciousness was
>         extraordinary and created, I think, an ambivalence of vision
>         which was to both help and hinder
>         me as a writer. At times I felt more Asiatic than European, at
>         times the opposite; at times I
>         felt like a white negro thinking in pidgin! (/Poetry London /1)

The "colouring shadow"of /Kim/ is key.  I may not be French, but I 
certainly know my Rudyard Kipling in the way that Durrell and others of 
his generation used to know their Rudyard Kipling.  (RK really does give 
us a language and culture of our own, O best beloved.)  Masterful 
disguises and dissimulation and "ambivalence of vision" are central to 
the education of Kim's character and to Kipling's storytelling.  "Lies" 
and "spies" and survival and success go hand-in-glove in /Kim/ as much 
as in its precursor tales/, The Odyssey/ and /Huckleberry Finn/, so I 
think that Durrell is aligning himself with a very special story-telling 
and self-mythologizing inheritance.    He claims to be like Kim--or like 
Mowgli on the run from the Bandar-log:

>         I have been followed from tree-top to tree-top by sportive
>         monkeys which pelted me with nuts and stones (Poetry London 1)

or like the boy in "Baa Baa Black Sheep," torn from Mother India by his 
English parents, so he tells his own life story borrowing from those 
fictions, expecting the attentive listeners to pick up on the "colour." 

>         I have seen the Rope Trick when I was ten, and distinctly felt
>         the hypnotic
>         power of the conjuror over us as we sat round him in a circle.
>         I have been followed from
>         tree-top to tree-top by sportive monkeys which pelted me with
>         nuts and stones. Their anger
>         made them very accurate and I was glad I wore the stout pith
>         helmet of my father, made of
>         cork about two inches thick--better than a modern
>         crash-helmet! I have seen a cobra fight a
>         mongoose. I have seen the peak of Everest from the foot of
>         l11.y bed in a gaunt dormitory in
>         Darjeeling! My first language was Hindi. And so on!  (Poetry
>         London 1)

Observe here how with a cobra and a mongoose Durrell even manages to 
transform himself into little Teddy from Kipling's "Rikki Tikk Tavi."  
"And so on!" is the key nudge.  And so on and on and on and on--Durrell 
plays out his "rope trick."   How high he climbs.  Who would believe 
it!  Yet there it is!! 

The point is not that "lying" occurs, but rather that one carries off 
the thing out with gusto and /sprezzatura/.  Of course, the impression 
of the Raj's brilliant Neverland is as true as anything one could 
claim--and also a parody?

The "Rope Trick" is another blatant nod to which we should attend.  The 
trick most certainly did exist as an entertainer's routine first brought 
to England by the Brothers Davenport (American entrepreneurs from the 
1860s, infamous for their Spiritualist ruses) and by Ramo Samee (a 
stagey name if ever), "the Hindoo Juggler."  These Rope Tricks were 
illusions and hoaxes, very well documented and enjoyed because of the 
wonder of the performance.  The audience knew it was top-shelf 
charlatanism, "but how does he do it?"  Thus for Durrell's hoaxes and 
the wonder of his audience--"But /how/ does he do it?  He makes it all 
so vivid, so charming, so real."

So the I ask:

Why would I read Lawrence Durrell if he was not, like Odysseus and Oscar 
Wilde, a consummate fabricator?

What would it say about the quickness of my judgment if after all of 
these years I declared suddenly--"O! my surprise!--Lawrence Durrell told 
tall tales?"

When in life or in works did Lawrence Durrell pretend otherwise?

I think that we best give up reading Durrell if we come to him for 
truth, accuracy, hygiene, sanitation, temperance, salvation, social 
justice, child-rearing advice, political empowerment, accurate spelling, 
marital counseling, or uplifting message.  

Beauty, wit, infinite jest, perhaps.  But these others--no.

Durrell's writings and autobiography have all "the completeness of 


Charles L. Sligh
Assistant Professor
Department of English
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
charles-sligh at utc.edu

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