[ilds] heraldic universe

Bruce Redwine bredwine1968 at earthlink.net
Wed Jun 29 12:27:10 PDT 2011


Some commentary on your interesting commentary.  I'm focusing on Durrell's letter to Miller (ca. August 1936) and comparing Ian MacNiven's exact (I assume) copy of this important document (Durrell-Miller Letters:  1935-80 [1979]) with George Wickes's edited version (Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller:  A Private Correspondence [1963]).  In the D-M letters, this is Durrell's earliest explanation of his "Heraldic Universe."

First, I think a distinction should be made between what Durrell intuits and how he explains what he intuits.  Moreover, I would rely more on the intuitions than the explanations. The former may result in some great and powerful poetry, the latter to inflated, opaque, and contradictory prose.  Hence, the occasional need to be oracular, to speak in caps:  "IT [art] IS GOING TO BE PROPHECY, in the biblical sense."

Second, what I like about the August 1936 letter is that it rambles.  It's wild and insane; it's unguarded and reveals Durrell's personality.  This craziness apparently irritated Wickes no end because he substantially edited the letter, rearranged it, made it coherent, and by so doing took out much of Durrell's psychic energy.  Young Durrell (only twenty-four) excitedly jumps from topic to topic ("I'm too excited," he exclaims) and fully exposes a rather huge, albeit insecure, ego (another thing which Wickes edited and toned down).  When you're twenty-four you do feel you can conquer the world and then a knighthood might be in store:  "Whether I am going to be knighted tomorrow is either true or false NOW."  A tongue-in-cheek hypothetical, you say?  Not entirely, I think.  Later in life Durrell will joke about winning a Nobel Prize (MacNiven, Letters, p. 509).  Why discuss Durrell's egotism?  Because, I think, Durrell's "big personality" (his own term for the artist) gets in the way of his art, and this goes back to problems I have with his "explanations."  He wants to play the role of Biblical prophet, but at the same time he claims that art is a "pure selfless action."  The explanations don't work. 

Third, in this letter, art is identified as a state of "being."  Hence, "What the man is is important" or "[T]he greatest art is timeless.  What it is is the man" (my italics).  Are these statements examples of Heideggerean "being?"  Maybe — in the sense that they seem to stress a state of non-reflective existence, a kind of "mindless" being that I take as an important aspect of Martin Heidegger's ontology.  Like Heidegger, Durrell is trying to get at what it means to be.  True, he's not making a philosophical argument.  No matter, he's expressing an intuition, an insight.  The paragraph where these statements appear, which Wickes deletes (perhaps because too abstruse), begins with a reference to Lao Tse and "selfless action."  (Heidegger and Lao Tse are not strange bedfellows; philosophers compare the two [see Michael E. Zimmerman, "Heidegger, Buddhism, and Deep Ecology," in The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, 1993, p. 259]).  Durrell then follows by saying "the big lust of the artist [is] to be spatialised.  TO BE WITHOUT MEMORY."

Now, if you eliminate memory, you eliminate time as time-past.  You exist in the eternal now, timeless space, the nunc stans.  You also eliminate the self and become selfless, for how can you have a "self," an I per se I, without memory?  This I take as an intuition, a very Taoist idea, undoubtedly felt in his very bones.  Which is also expressed as a variant, "I believe firmly in the ideal of cementing reality with the dream" — a paradox.  This way of looking at the non-reality of reality is similar to the famous scene in Prospero's Cell (1945, 1970), when young Durrell ponders, "What is causality?" and later answers the question by staring into the pool near the shrine of Saint Arsenius (pp. 15-16).  Another intuition.  Question causality and you question the basis of reality.  That beautiful scene of prose-poetry, mystifying in what it actually "says" or means, was largely invented; it was part fiction, according to Penelope Durrell Hope's daughter, if I'm not mistaken.  And that observation coincides with what Penelope herself said at the Durrell Celebration, Alexandria, 2007.  Penelope related that Nancy Myers, her mother, said Prospero's Cell was "all lies."  So, we have a dream of a dream.

I would argue that elusive state of being was Durrell's lifelong goal — initially expressed as "heraldic," later identified as Taoist.  Towards the end of his life, Durrell writes a memoir, A Smile in the Mind's Eye (1980, 1982), and there he seems to return to that crucial experience at the shrine of Saint Arsenius, fictional or not, and says, "It [a book on Taoism] led me back like a plumbline to that remote and far off day by the blue Ionian Sea when I said to myself with astonishment, 'Why goodness me, I must be a Taoist'" (p. 49).

Fourth, I could be mistaken, but I think the origins of "heraldic" are deeper and more fundamental than anything in the social milieu.


On Jun 28, 2011, at 11:37 AM, James Gifford wrote:

> Hi Bruce,
>> If you go back to the letter of August 1936, it
>> seems clear to me that what Durrell is describing
>> is, in Heidegger's sense, a "state of being."  So,
>> he's quite right to say that "it is not a 'state
>> of mind,'"
> Agreed!  Through I should have noted that Durrell also refers to the 
> Heraldic Universe earlier in his 1938 "Hamlet, Prince of China" (itself 
> a 1937 letter, again to Miller).
> In those instances, I don't know that I'd call it a heideggerian "state 
> of being," though I must own up that I'm simply not well versed in 
> Heidegger.  I read some in tandem with Sartre and Patocka in 1999/2000, 
> and I haven't gone back much since...
> Durrell has a novel repetition from the 1937 letter appearing in the 
> 1942 essay in /Personal Landscape/, and it caught my attention strongly 
> when I first noticed it: "the self, which you [Miller] used as a defence 
> against the novel terrors of this heraldic universe (as one might use 
> smoked glass to look at the sun)" (1937 letter, printed in 1938) later 
> becomes "'Art' then is only the smoked glass through which we can look 
> at the dangerous sun" (1942 essay).
> That shuffle between "self" and "art" is fine, especially since he 
> describes the Heraldic Universe as the individual's "inner heraldic 
> territory" or personal property.  It seems very much to be something 
> pre-social to Durrell and solipsistic though not the same a selfhood 
> either.  IMO, that don't jive with Heidegger's "being," but I could very 
> well be mistaken (I think it'd have to go back to Heidegger's response 
> to Sartre's essay on Humanism, which I think is in the /Basic Writings/ 
> book...  Dimly back a dozen years here).
> It's intriguing that Durrell's Heraldic realm isn't utopic, and art or 
> even selfhood stand as some kind of defensive tactic. Although at the 
> same time, it's something he's "creat[ing]... quite alone" and for which 
> he needs to lay a foundation (in that 1936 letter).  That suggests to me 
> that some kind of pre- and post-social Being (which allows for an 
> individual with reason and will not entirely determined by material 
> conditions) is involved in the equation, but that the Heraldic isn't the 
> autonomous Being-to-death and isn't identical with the self or art, even 
> though it may be contiguous.
> Of course, Durrell could have changed his mind.  I'm just intrigued by 
> the contiguity between Durrell's discussion of Miller's anarchism and 
> Read's (ostensible) communism in his first articulation of the Heraldic 
> Universe.  That strikes me as a part of the literary history of the 
> period more broadly.  Paired up with that, I'm (in a purely Durrellian 
> orientation) terribly interested in the distinction Durrell sets up 
> between the poet, the poem, the reader, and the inner world, as if they 
> are all in contact yet are radically separate at times.  It would imply 
> that art, once made, exists independent of us and beyond our 
> determination even if it emerges from the artist (much like an 
> individual may emerge from society yet is not determined or defined by 
> the social, if one buys that idea).
> James Clawson has a recent piece (I don't have a copy handy) that might 
> be useful for this:
> Clawson, James M. "Between Physics and Metaphysics: Spenglerian 
> Bergsonism in Durrell's /Revolt of Aphrodite/." /Mosaic: A Journal for 
> the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature/ 43.4 (2010): 123-139.
> I'll grab that today for read, if I can locate a copy, and report back 
> to the list.
> Best,
> James
> On 28/06/11 8:25 AM, Bruce Redwine wrote:
>> James,
>> Thanks for the reference.  If you go back to the letter of August
>> 1936, it seems clear to me that what Durrell is describing is, in
>> Heidegger's sense, a "state of being."  So, he's quite right to say
>> that "it is not a 'state of mind,'" i.e., something that is rational,
>> cognitive, and subject to logical analysis.  In this context, the
>> mentioning of Lao
>>  Tse is entirely appropriate.  Durrell's tendencies
>> are mystical, probably never fully realized, and I would cite his
>> "Heraldic Universe" as evidence of such.
>> Bruce

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