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

Bruce Redwine bredwine1968 at earthlink.net
Mon Jun 21 12:37:22 PDT 2010


Good discussion about a topic that interests me a great deal:  the difference between storytelling and lying.  I'm limiting my comments to the first paragraph of Durrell's "From the Elephant's Back."  A little close analysis.

1.  The context of the original talk at the Centre Pompidou, Paris.  I haven't read the full opening remarks, which are apparently in French, my knowledge of which is meager.  I find it hard to imagine, however, that a French audience would take Durrell's prefatory comment about "the theory and practice of fiction in relation to myself" to mean that the purpose of his talk was to entertain his listeners with a bunch of "tall tales."  The French are indeed subtle and capable of making "fine distinctions," but should they, or any audience for that matter, be expected to know when an author is lying, fabricating, inventing, improvising, or not?  Would any literary audience enjoy being hoodwinked, like attendees at a magic show?  Not I.  I guess I'm naive, but when I hear an author talk about his life, I expect the straight skinny and not a pack of untruths.  And apparently Bowker and MacNiven do too, for they appear to take "From the Elephant's Back" at face value, although making allowances for some inaccuracies, the latter's "innocent example of fiction revising reality."

2.  Making allowances for Durrell's assertions seems to be a frequent headache for both Bowker and MacNiven.  Note how often the word claim, noun or verb, appears in their biographies, statements like, "Durrell's claim of x" or "Durrell claimed x" (Bowker:  pp. 1, 3, 17, 23, passim; MacNiven:  pp. 13, 40, 52, 67, passim).  They're guarded about his "claims," but I've yet to see either of them deal with the problem head-on, although Bowker mentions "Irish blarney" (p. 25).

3.  Kipling.  Good point.  We agree on the influence of Kipling, but we disagree on its function.  I see it as a distortion of fact, not as "self-mythologizing inheritance."  Doesn't Kipling's pervasive influence make you suspicious that Durrell's self-portrait is too Kiplingesque?  Don't you think that it's too fetching, that what we're being treated to in this essay is not an accurate memoir, as it pretends to be, rather a fabrication, a glossy, Kiplingesque postcard from India?  So, we get another Jungle Book, one with a Hindi-speaking child of Anglo-Indian parentage, replete with pith helmet, monkeys, cobra, mongoose, and elephant.  And if that weren't enough, old LD throws in the "Indian Rope Trick," which never existed, and a view of Mount Everest, which doesn't exist in Darjeeling?  I'd say this "soup-mix recipe" of colonial India owes too much to Kipling and is a pastiche of his work, as you've also noted.  LD has out-Kipling Kipling.  Fakes do that kind of thing.  That's one way we know they're fakes — they're too idealized, too much what we expect.

4.  "The point is not that lying occurs, but rather that one carries the thing out with gusto and sprezzatura."  Sprezzatura?  I couldn't disagree more.  For me, the point is that lying occurs in a context where I expect honest answers.

5.  The Indian Rope Trick.  Durrell's claim that he saw it in India is almost certainly false, as false as the claim he saw Mount Everest in Darjeeling, assuming MacNiven is correct.  Maybe Sumantra can verify this geographic fact.  I have no immediate plans to travel to India.

6.  Durrell as "consummate fabricator."  Yes, we agree on that point.  We don't agree on the ethical relationship between fabricating and lying, when it comes to art and life.  I see a distinction between the two, and so did Durrell, when he claims, "I find art easy.  I find life difficult."  I wonder if, in part, he found art "easy" because there fabricating was both necessary and permissible, but in life lying made things "difficult."  The skills of one are not easily transferable to the other.


On Jun 19, 2010, at 1:31 PM, Charles Sligh wrote:

>> 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 
> falsehood." 
> C&c.
> -- 
> ********************************************
> Charles L. Sligh
> Assistant Professor
> Department of English
> University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
> charles-sligh at utc.edu
> ********************************************

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