Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Between Physics and Metaphysics: Spenglerian Bergsonism in Durrell's Revolt of Aphirodite

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Between Physics and Metaphysics: Spenglerian Bergsonism in Durrell's Revolt of Aphirodite

Article excerpt

Recent scholarship offers convincing reasoning for reconsidering Lawrence Durrell's understudied The Revolt of Aphrodite. Despite Durrell's declared affinities for Oswald Spengler, this essay argues that Henri Bergson offers a clearer lens through which to read the work, thus connecting the work with modernist forebears.

I tried to pitch myself somewhere between the two, to present something that looked like reason and was really a defense of unreason. Of course there is nothing new to the idea; the ground is ploughed out firm and true in Bergson, Spengler, Nietzsche [...].

--Durrell, "Letters to Eliot" 349

In an earlier issue of Mosaic, James Gifford argues convincingly for the reappraisal of Lawrence Durrell's Revolt of Aphrodite in light of Friedrich Nietzsche's writings on reality: "Durrell's distinction between contradictory realities mirrors Nietzsche's attack on the thought error of presuming a 'real' versus an 'apparent' world" (113). Though hesitant to confront the limitations of earlier readings of The Revolt of Aphrodite, Gifford maintains that these earlier interpretations of the two-part sequence overlook important details beyond the surface of its structure (112). In effect, critics have been content with reading The Revolt of Aphrodite as "something that looked like" one thing, even though it also offered something more.

These connections between Durrell and Nietzsche are not surprising. In correspondence with T.S. Eliot in 1938, quoted in the epigraph above, Durrell acknowledges the influence of Nietzsche alongside that of Henri Bergson and Oswald Spengler. But Durrell's willingness to name Bergson as an inspiration in early correspondence contrasts with work written in those intervening thirty years. In his lectures on modernist poetics, published in 1952 as A Key to Modern British Poetry, Durrell comments on the influence of the philosopher in the work of Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and even Robert Hichens: these links are not flattering, as their influence "had the effect of destroying form" (117). Most famously, in the second book of The Alexandria Quartet Durrell establishes that four-volume sequence as a challenge to "Bergsonian 'Duration,'" illustrated by Marcel Proust and James Joyce, in favour of an alternative Einsteinian approach to "Space-Time" (Balthazar 9). More than purposefully distinguishing his method from that of influential writers earlier in the century, his words suggest a shift in aesthetic as well. If these earlier novelists depict the ideas of Bergson, whom Durrell favoured in 1938, then The Alexandria Quartet--written some twenty years later--heralds the coming of Albert Einstein and what Durrell imagines will be an update to outmoded ideas.

In fact, as we can see in The Revolt of Aphrodite, the shift is a false start. Gifford rightly asserts that The Revolt of Aphrodite offers important insight into the development of Durrell's ideas between his two more widely studied sequences, The Alexandria Quartet and The Avignon Quintet. With that in mind, The Revolt of Aphrodite--published in two volumes as Tunc in 1968 and Nunquam in 1970--should have offered Durrell the opportunity to push the novel form even further beyond Joyce's and Proust's Bergsonian depictions while refining alternative Einsteinian methods. In The Revolt of Aphrodite, Felix Charlock invents a computer, "Abel," to read events in four dimensions and predict future events from past actions. Moreover, Charlock's insistence on spatializing memory via recordings breaks away from the duree-tional models of The Alexandria Quartet, in which Darley recalls "experiences, not in the order in which they took place [...] but in the order in which they first became significant for me" (Justine 115). But with The Revolt of Aphrodite, Durrell seems to have shifted away even from Einstein, claiming in the postface to the second volume that the novels demonstrate a Spenglerian approach: "It's a sort of novel-libretto based on the preface to The Decline of the West" (Nunquam 285). …

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