[ilds] Durrell's "Axial Age"

Sligh, Charles Charles-Sligh at utc.edu
Thu Sep 11 06:54:40 PDT 2014

Good to find you sharing your reading and your afterthoughts, Bruce.

Your reflections led me to the following, jotted down here with speed and economy.

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.

Yes—the Quartet seems to me to be, at its most profound levels, an Epochal book.  It marks out some "hinge" space between "then" and "now" in the lives of its narrators, its characters, its constituent cultures, its author, and the Novel as a genre.  Its best poetry, its lasting music and imagery, all come from its sense of tunc and nunc.

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.

My reservation comes with the notion of "success," something hard to estimate while we are trapped here in our own provincial subjectivities of Time and Space.  (Afterwards, once we are translated, perhaps we shall be able to see as we are seen.)

That said, I am fascinated with the marked difference of the Quintet.  That is a challenging work with which I am still trying to come to terms.  That is a work that continually reminds me about my very real, very narrow limits as a reader.

I think that it is fair to say that Durrell's works have tutored me in humility, patience, and an abiding sense of irony.  I mean here to highlight Durrell's valuable insight that it is best not to presume—best not to presume that the achievement (or experience) of the Quintet somehow "live up to" or "realize" or "surpass" the achievement (or experience) of the Quartet.  Or to the achievement (or experience) of any other novel.

"Live up to" and "realize" and "surpass" are all too easy critical conventions, old cliches used at a price that I find most reviewers and critics do not fully understand.  These seemingly simple verbs enforce plot-lines that blind us all to other possibilities, other discoveries, and other experiences.  More and more, I am coming to see that what reviewers and critics have mistaken as "wrong" in Durrell's writing originates in the estranging difference of what he offers (style, storytelling, character, morals, &c.), not in the limits of Durrell's writing per se.  Rather, the supposed "wrongness" originates in critical complacency, a misguided sense that the definitions are settled and the great patterns are laid down.

As you quote, Durrell writes after the "rupture."  He certainly knows the Greats, the models, &c.  However, Cheshire Cat that Durrell is, he asks the questions that make us wake up and wonder, perhaps for the first time, "Why do we presume it need be thus?  Why is this particular character done 'successfully', and that character not?  Why must prose style (or human psychology, or plot, or morals) always be thus, and not otherwise?  How might two paces--east or west, backward or forward in history--change all of these values, utterly?"

Pursewarden chuckles darkly that the Critics mounted their risers and scanned the avenue in search of the next Trollope.  And that ironic chuckle should ride behind us all, as we dash forward in our critical triumphs.

To re-phrase your words, I do think that the Quintet is about "lost ties"--it witnesses some drastic process of disconnection and drift that, I suppose, echoes and gives expression to the drift of a European culture that had attempted suicide twice in its author's century.

Keep up the reading—I will attend with interest.


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

From: Bruce Redwine <bredwine1968 at earthlink.net<mailto:bredwine1968 at earthlink.net>>
Reply-To: "ilds at lists.uvic.ca<mailto:ilds at lists.uvic.ca>" <ilds at lists.uvic.ca<mailto:ilds at lists.uvic.ca>>
Date: Wednesday, September 10, 2014 6:19 PM
To: Durrell list <ilds at lists.uvic.ca<mailto:ilds at lists.uvic.ca>>
Cc: Bruce Redwine <bredwine1968 at earthlink.net<mailto:bredwine1968 at earthlink.net>>
Subject: [ilds] Durrell's "Axial Age"

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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