A Brief Analysis of Lawrence Durrell's Fiction
Lawrence Durrell's goal in writing is to "sum up in a sort of metaphor the cosmology of a particular moment in which we are living." He is a metaphysical writer who, through his characters, asks philosophical questions such as, What is the nature of reality? How does the artist describe it in words? What is the right way to live as an artist and as a human being?
When Durrell's perspective on reality is considered, the reader must first take into account his origins in India. Throughout his life, Durrell recalled his "childhood dream of Tibet" with great nostalgia:
- If you live in a Buddhist country, it is so extraordinary. You wake up without being afraid of your neighbor, as you do in the countries we inhabit. The whole of nature seems permeated by a sense of harmless good will, and it opens a field for self development which is not accessible in a country where you have very rigid, theologically oriented people with a national ethos that's repressive or restrictive in any way.
Drawing on these childhood memories and his readings in contemporary physics, Durrell claims that the cosmology of the mid-twentieth century can be found in a blend of Western physics with Eastern metaphysics, which he says "are coming to a point of continence." These notions are explained in A Key to Modern British Poetry, which Durrell published in 1952.
In A Key to Modern British Poetry, Durrell begins by looking at Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, whom he calls the two major architects of modem Western consciousness. Einstein is significant because he "torpedoed the old Victorian material universe" and Freud because he "torpedoed the idea of the stable ego." The discoveries of Einstein and Freud, occurring at nearly the same time period, unlocked the secrets of the "universe outside man, and the universe inside." Einstein, and the physicists who followed him, in exploring the universe outside humankind discarded the notion that the smallest unit of matter is the particle. They proved, instead, that "particles" sometimes are better thought of as waves. Durrell translates this discovery into human terms: At times people are conscious of themselves as individuals, but if they accept the fact of the continuum that exists in the melding of time and space, then people "may perhaps form ingredients of a single continuous stream of life."
In Durrell's view, Freud's discovery of the universe inside humankind parallels Einstein's investigations into the world outside. Studying hysterics in the 1890's, Freud noticed how under hypnosis they were able to recall painful experiences of which their waking, conscious minds were unaware. Freud hypothesized that there was an area of the mind beyond consciousness; he called it the unconscious, and, according to Durrell, that is "how the idea of the splitting of the psyche first started." Durrell, like D. H. Lawrence before him, rejected "the old stable ego of character" in favor of characterization that is more amorphous and ambiguous. As Balthazar in The Alexandria Quartet says: "Each psyche is really an ant-hill of opposing predispositions. Personality as something with fixed attributes is an illusion."
If space and time are relative and the human personality is not fixed, the cosmology of the age needs to reflect these uncertainties. The closest equivalent philosophical system, in Durrell's view, can be found in Eastern philosophies. According to Buddhism, once the ego stops its selfish cravings, it enters a state of oneness with the universe. Durrell calls this state a "field," which is the spiritual equivalent of the field concept in physics. Durrell believes that the unity and interrelatedness of matter in the physical world can be applied to the spiritual realm as well: "Phenomena may be individuals carrying on separate existences in space and time, but in the deeper reality beyond space and time we may be all members of one body." Durrell has a name for this deeper reality; he calls it the Heraldic Reality.
Durrell's entire literary output--his poetry, novels, travel writings--can be seen as a quest to enter this exalted realm. Many of Durrell's major characters, such as Darley, Pursewarden, and Clea in The Alexandria Quartet, Constance and Blanford in The Avignon Quintet, and the narrator of Prospero's Cell (1945), are heroes and heroines on a quest to transform their lives. As they proceed in their quest, they face obstacles. They sometimes realize that they have set off in the wrong direction. As the narrator of The Black Book says: "There is only trial and error on a journey like this, and no signposts."
The people that Durrell's modern hero encounters are no help, either. They too have no recognizable signposts to their personalities. When Justine in The Alexandria Quartet looks at her multi-faceted reflections in a dressmaker's mirror, she asks: "Why should not people show more than one profile at a time?"
The quests on which Durrell's characters embark do not exactly follow the traditional pattern of the Western hero. Instead, these journeys more closely correspond to the movement of the soul in reincarnation. Even when Durrell began his writing career in the 1930's, he had this pattern in mind. The first draft of Justine was entitled The Book of the Dead. The Avignon Quintet also deals with death. In an interview, Durrell noted the importance of this subject: "The basic trauma, the basic neurosis" in human life is death. If one can get "on top of it" by facing its reality and also by subduing the "recalcitrant ego," then one can achieve "celestial amnesia, which is antiegoism." One then ends up "swimming in the continuum," another word for the Heraldic Reality.
"Lawrence Durrell" by Anna Lillios, reproduced from Magill's Survey of World Literature, volume 7, pages 2334-2342. Copyright © 1995, Salem Press, Inc. Reprinted by permission of the copyright holder.