[ilds] ILDS Digest, Vol 75, Issue 5_Message 2_James Gifford

James Gifford james.d.gifford at gmail.com
Thu Jul 11 02:00:50 PDT 2013

Hello Sumantra,

Thanks for this, and I'm enjoying the exchange.  Sleep and I are 
strangers grown, but the nights are brisk and lovely right now...  I'm 
sending this sleepily without re-reading it, so please forgive!

> Your phrase “…the determinism of the city's libidinal coercion…” deals
> with a fundamental aspect of the /Quartet/. Durrell’s oft repeated
> pronouncement about being caught in a gravitational field thrown down by
> the city, about the personae being the “flora and fauna” to the will of
> Alexandria.

I actually think of something fairly specific in this, and I'm curious 
what you think.  The "gravitational field" always struck me as 
determinist and without human will, and just the same the "flora" 
(they're never human *fauna*, oddly enough... and hence mindless while 
libidinal).  I can't help but see this in direct contrast to the 
predecessor generation of Marxist determinists, perhaps with Christopher 
Caudwell as the best exemplar but also pre-1939 Auden.  The city's 
coercive will overwhelming the individual strikes me as much akin to the 
critiques given by Henein and Cossery, who critiqued any elision of the 
individual under the social collective.  Both Henein and Cossery were 
adamantly anti-Communist but also not capitalist...  A third term 
perhaps, reflected in their publication venues, even venues to which 
Durrell had their works sent.

This notion of individuals being subject to the will of the city is at 
the heart of how I've been reading the Quartet for the past handful of 
years (and I would by extension consider this the social collective, a 
stretch that I think is not terribly far from the imagery he gives of 
the corporeal city).  The Orientalism is there, but I can't quite feel 
that we're meant to endorse or accept it -- some or perhaps most of it 
makes the reader uncomfortable (it makes *me* uncomfortable, but I have 
no desire to be Darley!).  Instead, the invasive will of the libido 
strikes me as somehow anti-egoist.  It destroys the Self.  It's the 
domination of the individual's capacity for reason by the determinist 
and wholly unconscious city.

Those who don't break free of lust are physically damaged at the end of 
the Quartet.  Those who engage with the capacity for reason are 
magically healed (no glasses or a new hand).  Does anyone actually want 
to end up like Justine or Nessim?  Pursewarden or Balthazar in his mad 
lust?  The individual can reconcile with the IT / Id / unknown / 
unbewusst so long as this doesn't become a pathway for rule by the city 
or the social whole.  Ego over Super-ego, in a sense.  Robert Duncan, 
who was reading and publishing Durrell in the 30s & 40s, would call this 
the obscene demands of the super-ego that cripples the ego and Id. 
Duncan saw it in explicitly political terms as well, with the "Ich/ego" 
as the individual, struggling between the two foreign wills of the Id / 
It / unconscious / unbewusst / unknown versus the Superego (which Duncan 
aligned with the social whole).

Notably, Durrell sent Georges Henein and Albert Cossery to Robert Duncan 
through Henry Miller to be published in the highly political /Circle/ 
magazine in the fledgling San Francisco Renaissance.  There's more in 
that interaction, I think, that contextualizes the period.  After all, 
how many readers think of Allen Ginsberg reading Cossery as sent by 
Durrell or of Kenneth Rexroth linking Durrell to the unpolitical 
political groups tied to Henry Miller, Alex Comfort, and George Woodcock?

> Trilling is quoted as referring to the absence of will among the
> characters of the /Quartet/ and I read this as a sort of indictment of
> the novel in terms of what the characters actually do - or don’t do.
> Durrell himself seems to emphasize this condition not perhaps by design
> but as his perception of people living out their lives in a climate
> which saps the energy and will. “Exhausted” is a word he often uses to
> broadly describe the state of people in Alexandria and the city’s “airs”
> (?).

I suspect more of this.  The climate's "exhaustion" is certainly a 
trope, more in his letters than the novel even, but I can't help but 
think this is distinct from the "will" of the novel.  The grand contest 
seems (for me) to be between the individual mind and the unconscious or 
unknown drives of the libido set in relation to the foreign drives of of 
the social collective.  This is extended to the city (social collective 
or more broadly, I think, economic determinism so nicely exemplified by 

There's the orientalist sense of an enervating climate of the colonized 
Other as one potential interpretation, and it can work -- the contrast 
is a conflict between wills, one individual and the other social.  This 
can certainly be understood in the old racist "colonizer good" and 
"colonized bad" paradigm, and elements of that are certainly present in 
the Quartet, but I personally see Durrell's suggestions of the "Self" 
being dominated or exhausted by a foreign (urban) will as a different 

I think particularly of the New Apocalypse's sense of the "machine" or 
the San Francisco Renaissance and Robert Duncan's idea of "men used as 
things."  I rather suspect that the latter is the centre of Durrell's 
concerns.  He worries over the stultifying effects of the climate, but 
he also celebrates it in other works (this is much as he hates Tito's 
Yugoslavia during the break from the Cominform but praises its great 
beauty in his uncollected travel writings on the country).  All of those 
works, however, critique the absorption of the individual into the 
foreign will of the city or social whole.

At the same time, 1956/7 are auspicious years for the "exhaustion" of 

All best,

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