I pick up a small pamphlet from a second-hand bookshop’s online store about Durrell, written by John Unterecker and published in 1964, as part of a series on “modern writers”. It seems there are few book-length critical appraisals of Durrell’s life and work outside academia, with most appearing in literary journals that are hard for any layman to find or access. Of the few appraisals that have been published, including a biography from Faber & Faber, few are affordable or still in print.
Though Unterecker is writing a quarter of a century before Durrell’s death in 1990, before the publication of so many more books, the unfolding and enfolding scope of his work is already well apparent. “Lawrence Durrell is a man of infinite variety”, he writes. “But he’s a man of marble consistency as well.” (I think of the variability of Deleuze’s folds, the pliant marble of a Bernini sculpture, “infinitive distance rather than infinitive identity.”) He lists the few literary styles that Durrell hasn’t yet mastered, or at least those he has yet to try his hand at. But give “him time enough — and space — and you will have set-up the space-time continuum that, from very early in his career until the present moment, operates for Durrell as a kind of subterranean metaphor — a metaphor for a literary structure that does not significantly change from work to work and on which he has draped all of the superficial variety of poems, essays, plays.”
Durrell’s subterranean writing is contrasted with the autobiographical honesty of Henry Miller, whom Durrell maintained a lengthy correspondence with. Miller said of his friend: “Your personal life is bound up with places, fauna and flora, archaeology, the planets, mythology. You’re always ‘heraldic’.” Each symbol, sign, archetype, character taken up and sketched from memory nonetheless adorns a shield behind which Durrell keeps so much hidden. If Miller transforms the novel through an unprecedented honesty, Durrell follows his lead to plumb more fictional depths, retreating behind the play of human minds constructed.
Unterecker goes onto address the symbol Durrell is perhaps best-known for; how he sketches “in on the heraldic shield … the image of an isolated island, Mediterrranean, sun-washed, sea-stroked.” From Corfu to Cyprus to Rhodes to Crete, each island, always changing from work to work, still “retains its isolating, healing function” in every instance. The sea that surrounds them all, as he writes in The Black Book, “drives up ‘night-long over one’s dreams, washing, forever washing and breaking up into one’s thoughts, purifying, healing, destroying.'” Along this turbulent latitude, Durrell’s own vision of a Millerian tropic where islands gather, “even a lifeline is no good and the diving bell of the philosopher crumples with laughter.” Unterecker adds how, in The Alexandria Quartet, the sea functions as “the underlying metaphor which defines the artist, the artist who ‘finds himself growing gills and a tail, the better to swim against the currents of unenlightenment,’ the man who unites the rushing, needless stream of humanity to the still, tranquil, motionless, odourless, tasteless plenum from which its own motive essence is derived.”
This thalassic undertow, at once surging over and from within human consciousness, is clearly psychoanalytic; a re-inversion of Ferenczi’s thalassa, returning cosmic genitality from matter to myth. But it also responds to many of the scientific innovations of Durrell’s time. Unterecker notes the importance of Einstein’s theory of relativity to Durrell’s landscapes and island portraits, for instance, one important aspect of which, “the Principle of Indeterminacy, effectively cuts the ground out from under the neat causality of nineteenth-century science.” Deleuze’s theory of noncausal or quasi-causal relations comes to mind once again. Human objectivity, in studies of nature especially, is a fallacy. “For when we can never observe without to some extent corrupting the thing observed, we soon find we have to discard the notion of verifiable truth.”
I return to thinking about my own grappling with the habit of writing, all too aware of the corrupting influence that my attempts to understand my social field have on that same social field.
Even my depression, in itself, unnarrated and unregulated, feels like the product of a peculiar and labyrinthian map of quasi-causes. Something happens from without, unearthing something incongruous from deep within, which in turn corrupts, through an intensification from myriad sources, the relations of self-hatred that so many who love me become disastrously involved in.
Freud noted how mental illness is always innately narcissistic, as one understandably turns inward, toward one’s own pain. We tear at the flesh like Ovid’s Narcissus in the hope it will give way to some desired transformation, a transmutation into new forms of life and living (which can, at their most drastic, result in nothing more than life itself overcome). But there is no life begun or ended that does not ripple across the world it enters and exits. We tell stories to make the chaos make sense, but it is all rickety scaffolding. I think of Laura Riding’s cutting prose, taking the nose off both modernism and modernity in one fell swoop:
When a baby is born there is no place to put it: it is born, it will in time die, therefore there is no sense in enlarging the world by so many miles and minutes for its accommodation. A temporary scaffolding is set up for it, an altar to ephemerality — a permanent altar to ephemerality. This altar is the Myth.
In truth, when the logical progression from cause to effect is disturbed, things are not so much ephemeral as they are enduring in their entanglements.
I’m left struggling with the fact that an ephemeral depression, the worst of which lasted a single month (presuming the worst really is over), is going to continue to define my life and many of my relationships for quite some time, living with the aftershocks. What felt like an acutely isolating experience, for me, even as my friends did their utmost to help, affected everyone in ways unforeseen.
I think about what I could have done differently, if anything. I try not to gather up regrets but instead try and excavate some glimmer of rationality from the depths of illness. In the chaos, it is disturbing to reflect that, with hindsight, I had, at times, far less and far more control than first thought. “I feel out of control”, I would say, and yet be commended on doing the best I could. Feeling wholly divorced from my own agency, I have nonetheless, in fits and spurts, done right by myself. But it is also true that many of my own actions were both implicitly and explicitly shaped by the actions of others.
In this way, a very personal crisis was steered by all, at times blindly, nervously, defiantly, intuitively. From just beyond the fray, I feel like no one person — myself included — can really take any credit for the direction of travel. In making various attempts, whether seemingly alone and with others, to exorcise my demons, there was no priest overseeing proceedings; just a gathering of friends, professionals, strangers, acquaintances, each with a finger held tentatively on the planchette, spelling out riddles for wellness on a Ouija board.
In Durrell’s interlinked novels, many of which tell the same stories from multiple, divergent perspectives, it beings to seem, as Unterecker notes, that the various characters are “dancing through a frantic relationship in much the same way that atoms in a balloonful of hot air bound and rebound against one another.” “But we would soon realize”, he continues, “if we were witty enough, that the patterns we saw those atoms creating were — because of our limited (and distorting) visions — patterns as much of our own construction as of the atoms themselves.”
Writing on the work of Joyce and Proust, Eliot and Rilke, Durrell describes how new theories of time, from Einstein but also philosophers like Bergson (whose theories he later admitted to confusing and holding a little too closely together), led to “an attempt to present the material of human and supernatural affairs in the form of poetic continuum, where the language no less than the objects observed are impregnated with a new time.” The works produced at this time of new scientific theory and enquiry did “not proceed along a straight line, but in a circular manner, coiling and uncoiling upon themselves, embedded in the stagnant flux and reflux of a medium which is always changing.” But the self is not so much lost in the continuum, as in many of Virginia Woolf’s space-time-bending novels: “Characters have a significance almost independent of the actions they engage in: they hang above the time-track which leads from birth to action, and from action to death: and, spreading out time in this manner, contribute a significance to everything about them.”
It is a dizzying perspective — indeed, hardly a “perspective” at all — that one feels at risk of getting lost in, wholly abdicating, albeit inadvertently, from any stable sense of self. A quest for the truth at first makes everything known appear false. But the innate relativity and contingency of life also opens up new realms of possibility. As one of Durrell’s characters writes in The Alexandria Quartet:
It is a fancy of mine that each of us contains many lives, potential lives. They are laid up inside us, shall we say, like so many rows of shining metals — railway lines. Riding along one set towards the terminus, we can be aware of these other lines, alongside us, on which we might have travelled — on which we might yet travel is only we had the strength to change.
Travel is another central metaphor for Durrell, although often framed as insufficient, as if we can never travel as far externally, through space and time, as we might hope to internally. Indeed, any adventure across land and sea “takes the narrator only a short way on those ‘immense journeys of discovery’ which in his imagination he constructs, journeys which lead out from the day-to-day chaos of the world, a world which progressively ‘becomes less integral, less whole,’ toward something intangible, unattainable, toward something desperately desired, ‘toward the inaccessible absolute’.” But we may nonetheless discover, in the process, “a new territory inside ourselves in which each one of us who is seeking to grow, to identify himself more fully with life, will feel like Columbus discovering America.”
This reference to Columbus is more apt than it is outdated. We are stalked always by the Robinson Crusoe fallacy, always capable, even prone to arriving in new lands and thinking that our arrival alone is enough to change us, as we set about — perhaps unconsciously — erecting a simulation of where we have just been, for the better and often disastrously for the worse.
“Balancing on the fulcrum of his two identities” — one consciously adventurous, pioneering, brave; the other unconsciously conservative, habitual, automated — “man corrupts his internal landscape in much the same way that he corrupts his external one.” Our impact on the external world, and the consequences and implications of this impact, nonetheless force us to order “the accidental imagery of … life into a useful design”, destined to be etched onto shields, flags, flesh. We are always capable of promoting new flagbearers to lead the way out and in.
More satisfying than those he imposes on his external world, these internal patterns offer man roads on which he takes some of his longest journeys, those which lead him beyond the limits of the self and into the mythical kingdom of the collective unconscious.
But there are far more terrors to be found within than without, and a whole host of characters who are far from agreeable in the heart of darkness. Durrell, at the end of The Black Book:
Is the journey plural or am I? It is a question only to be answered at the outposts.
The quest always ends with a question.