[ilds] Durrell's "Axial Age"

Bruce Redwine bredwine1968 at earthlink.net
Wed Sep 10 15:19:12 PDT 2014

Some very tenuous notes on reading Jan Assmann's Cultural Memory and Early Civilization:  Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination (Cambridge, 2011).  Assmann is German and a prominent Egyptologist.  This book, a translation of one written in 1992, is about the formation of "cultural memory," loosely defined as tradition in the broadest sense transmitted via orality, rituals, and texts.  Cultural memory is how we define ourselves as social beings in a particular cultural environment.  In Moses and Monotheism (1939), Freud believed cultural memory, as he tried to account for the psycho-history of Judaism, was transmitted biologically through some genetic mechanism.  Assmann disagrees and argues for a purely social form of transmission.

"Axial Age" is Karl Jasper's famous term for a major turning point in human history, namely the fairly synchronous appearances of Confucius, Lao-tse, the Upanishads, Buddha, Zoroaster, the Jewish prophets, Homer, Heraclitus, Plato, et al.  Assmann disagrees with Jaspers over the period of time and the cause of this transformation.  He lengthens the temporal span to about 1400 BCE to 600 CE and attributes it to literacy, which irrevocably impacts social memory (265).  

Assmann also focuses on Homer of the 8th century and asks why the poet (or poets) sang about the Mycenaean/Heroic Age of the 12th century.   His answer:  "[Homer's] epics mark the end of the heroic saga as a living, oral tradition . . . They also belong to the end rather than the peak of the way of life and the world-view that they depict . . . The heroic epic is the favorite genre of cultural memory in the framework of a particular form of society" (249).  In short, nostalgia inspires Homer, although this is not Assmann's word.

James Clawson recently quoted Durrell's comment on his personal development in "From the Elephant's Back" (1981/83):  "I knew that I was part of a splendid tradition and I hoped to do as well as my forerunners.  But as I came to read them I realised just how stable their Victorian world had been and how unstable mine had become, how precarious and unsettling the new metaphysics was."  Durrell undoubtedly refers to the disruption of the Victorian worldview caused by the works of Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, and Einstein.

Back to Durrell in Egypt and The Alexandria Quartet.  It may be useful to see the Quartet as one of those flowerings that come at the end of an age.  Metaphysically, Durrell certainly saw himself on the cusp of a new worldview:  socially, psychologically, and physically/scientifically.  The Quartet deals with these issues.  But he also lived in a city whose long history was coming to an end and about to adopt a new identity.  (Read Haag's City of Memory and his Vintage Alexandria for descriptions of that turning point.)  Hence, the strong and pervasive sense of nostalgia throughout the four novels.  I guess I'm simply suggesting some obvious connection between Durrell's awareness of an "Axial Age" and his direct experience of the end of Alexandria as a "cosmopolis," as Haag calls it.  As Darley says in two places, "A city becomes a world when one loves one of its inhabitants" (1962:  57, 832).  "Love" here may take on the historical meaning of nostalgia for a lost age, as Homer sings about the lost Age of Heroes.  The correspondence is approximate, not exact.

A possible consequence of rupturing this linkage.  When Durrell loses his tie to nostalgia of place, his writing becomes far less successful, to wit, as in The Avignon Quintet. 


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