I'm putting this paper up for my extended family members (laowai and chardinsgodot), but any other readers are welcome. The content, however, shouldn't be used for plagiarism, although that would be awesome and hilarious to turn this in to a high school English teacher.
Adam M. Schenck
ENLG 557B: Modern British Literature
6 March 2006
Darley’s Narrative Voice in Justine: Writer, Self, Egotist
The central conceit of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet is the novelistic exercise in the “relativity proposition,” as Durrell puts it in the introduction to Balthazar. But more importantly, the latter three novels function as a correction to the would-be tour de force that is Justine. The first novel takes on many of the characteristics that define the modern novel after the modernist movement and World War II: a hyper-focus on the voice and individuality of the writer, a privileging of his sensibility (both in style and the physical senses), and the working-out of the writer’s relationship to collective society and its morality. Originally published in 1957, Justine offers a sort of Rorschach test for the modern self and writer.
And what is a writer but an egotist? I think that one symptom of the modern is a preoccupation with developing and maintaining a separate self. This is different from the selfhood that would be imagined in bildungsroman-type novels; that narrative builds, as it were, a unitary self. But after the upheavals of both world wars, fragmentation becomes a primary trope in most serious novels, and Durrell in fact uses the word “fragmentation.” The question is what becomes of the self after fragmentation? The unitary self becomes replaced by a self whose boundaries are provisional and must be maintained by the self. And this process never really has an end, or it does, but only in death. In the age of the modern, there is a self, but it is fragmented, liquid, provisional. Compensation—what might appear as a subtly egotistical narrative voice—becomes the trace with which to interpret the modern Western sense of self.
All this sounds vaguely Freudian to me. I don’t know whether or where Freud said it, but it seems reliable to say that the artist is essentially a psychologically unhealthy individual. The true artist is obsessed with projection—usually projecting his or her personality into the work of art. Short men may drive big trucks to compensate for their height, but an artist compensates by inflating his or her sense of self and then projecting that personality into the work of art. And for Durrell, the difference between the “writer” and the “artist” is really no difference at all, for the terms are collocated:
I spoke of the uselessness of art but added nothing truthful about its consolations. The solace of such work as I do with brain and heart lies in this—that only there, in the silences of the painter or the writer can reality be reordered, reworked and made to show its significant side. (17)
And art—it is work. This excerpt from early in Justine shows that the narrator’s assignment for himself is nothing less than the complete reordering of “reality…to show its significant side.” Put another way, the writer fights against a reality which has no inherent significance or meaning, and shapes it to give reality meaning. A rather Herculean task: with some “consolations” but perhaps useless, as Darley says. The personality of the writer, then, must make meaning and order out of a reality which has neither. And this order is complicated: it is “there, in the silences of the painter or the writer.” The communication of the evanescent.
This would seem Herculean enough. But add to this problem the fact that not only is reality waiting to be “reworked,” the writer’s self is momentary and fragmented. The writer must create or recreate both selfhood and reality—mutual tasks indissolubly linked. This offers a thoroughly ironic reading to the “Publisher’s Note” and the “Note” which commence Justine, in respective order: “Names, characters, places, and incidents…are the product of the author’s imagination.” Then, the “Note”: “The characters in this novel, the first of a series, are all inventions together with the personality of the narrator…” (9). In one sense we know that all this is posturing: Lawrence Durrell, the writer, knew people and noticed behaviors in his real life which he puts to use in the novel; great writers steal instead of borrow. But the more intriguing question is, how much are these delineations—“author’s imagination,” “personality of the narrator”—truly “inventions,” the “product” of a yearning to control both reality and the self? Do we not form our nonfiction lives into sensible, fictional narratives? Should modern life come with its own publisher’s note?
These boundaries—between self, other, product, art, writer, character, and the list goes on—are held separate by egotism, which I want to define as the anxious reaction to the possibility that we do not have individualistic selves. My idea is that technological and economic progress in the West has made modern life so individualistic, so anti-collectivist, that the modern ego’s function is not unlike a constantly-running machine that maintains boundaries. The age of anxiety of sameness is upon us. In crowds, we would like to imagine ourselves all alone.
Let us return to the excerpt which brings the writer/artist, the work of art and the problem of reality together:
As for me I am neither happy nor unhappy; I lie suspended like a hair or a feather in the cloudy mixtures of memory. I spoke of the uselessness of art but added nothing truthful about its consolations. The solace of such work as I do with brain and heart lies in this—that only there, in the silences of the painter or the writer can reality be reordered, reworked and made to show its significant side. Our common actions in reality are simply the sackcloth covering which hides the cloth-of-gold—the meaning of the pattern. For us artists there waits the joyous compromise through art with all that wounded or defeated us in daily life; in this way not to evade destiny, as the ordinary people try to do, but to fulfil it in its true potential—the imagination. Otherwise why should we hurt one another? No, the remission I am seeking, and will be granted perhaps, is not one I shall ever see in the bright friendly eyes of Melissa or the sombre brow-dark gaze of Justine. We have all of us taken different paths now; but in this, the first great fragmentation of my maturity I feel the confines of my art and my living deepened immeasurably by the memory of them. In thought I achieve them anew; as if only here—this wooden table over the sea under an olive tree, only here can I enrich them as they deserve. So that the taste of this writing should have taken something from its living subjects—their breath, skin, voices—weaving them into the supple tissues of human memory. I want them to live again to the point where pain becomes art….Perhaps this is a useless attempt, I cannot say. But I must try. (16-17)
The excerpt is admittedly longish, but it brings together many of the problems of the modern that Justine documents, consciously or unconsciously. The paragraph begins with admittance that the self is momentary and liquid. If Darley is “neither happy nor unhappy,” he is apart from the direct emotion that offers “proof” of our selves: the Cartesian proposition “Cogito ergo sum,” the “I think, therefore I am.” What holds the self together after emotion is described via simile: “I lie suspended like a hair or a feather in the cloudy mixtures of memory.” The “I” here is a weak one, an almost-self, held together by memories waiting to be cherry-picked. The question is, what happens to the self in the “dim momentum in the mind…the fugue upon which this writing is made” (16)? The answer, if there is one, would lead one to question the self itself; the meditative tone and the similes here work against boundaries.
But while the state of mind which produces the work of art works against the separate self, the work of art sustains it: “The solace of such work as I do with brain and heart lies in this—that only there, in the silences of the painter or the writer can reality be reordered, reworked and made to show its significant side.” Grammatically this sentence makes Darley’s “I” and “the painter or the writer” one in the same. “Work” is done by an “I,” with physical and metaphysical existence: “work as I do with brain and heart.” Body and spirit unified into a self separate from its surroundings and others. And the power of this “I” can make “reality…reordered, reworked and made to show its significant side.” But what happens during the composition of art? Merriam-Webster defines “fugue” as “a disturbed state of consciousness in which the one affected seems to perform acts in full awareness but upon recovery cannot recollect the deeds.” The work that makes the work of art makes the self (the artist) disappear, only to appear that much more strongly because “reality” has been “reworked.” The work of art records this reappearance of the self.
But there is more; the work of art instead documents the disappearance of the separate self and its provisional boundaries. Art is the artist’s disappearing act, for the self is projected so much that it becomes erased. Aphanasis, the disappearance of the subject (or the self), becomes something to be feared but at the same time the greatest desire of the artist. The cycle is contradictory: art produces the artist that it erases. In another context: do we love in order to lose ourselves, or love in order to find ourselves? Science says that the early stages of falling in love, which causes the separation between self and other to disappear, are so rapturous that the state cannot be maintained. The self comes back, full circle—the ego maintains itself.
Could the sentence that follows have been written in 1980 or today, or is Durrell’s 1957 publication date for Justine right on the cusp of the postmodern? Darley says: “Our common actions in reality are simply the sackcloth covering which hides the cloth-of-gold—the meaning of the pattern.” This is a formula for art uncomfortable with the idea that the artist makes meaning sui generis. I’m reminded of the Romantic notion that the poet is a “conduit” who uses art to bring hidden meaning to life. The language of the sentence is metaphorical; “actions” have little to do with “sackcloth,” yet they “hid[e] the cloth-of-gold.” All this sounds good enough, but the language seems preoccupied with the possibility that there may indeed be no “meaning for the pattern.” Do “our common actions” even make a pattern? The sentence seems hold up a model for art that has not recognized that the nuclear age means that the world as we know it could end any minute. In the end, the formula is highly writer- and artist-centered, the artist’s duty as spiritual vocation.
And it’s also the needs of the ego that start the whole artistic process: “For us artists there waits the joyous compromise through art with all that wounded or defeated us in daily life; in this way not to evade destiny, as the ordinary people try to do, but to fulfil it in its true potential—the imagination.” It seems that the “compromise through art with all that wounded or defeated us in daily life” would posit a person unprepared to deal with the interactions and emotions of everyday life. The previous sentence speaks of the “cloth-of-gold,” while this one would have us believe that thing is no different from the prosaic personal disappointments of the artist-worker. This “joyous compromise through art” would seem to be projecting onto feelings of defeat that which is not there, instead of “not evad[ing] destiny.” Meeting “destiny” by reworking one’s little perturbations—the artistic process seems suddenly less noble, more egotistical.
The sentence has an “it” that seems ambiguous: “…not to evade destiny…but to fulfil it in its true potential—the imagination.” The “it” must refer to destiny, the one which comes from transforming “all that wounded us…in daily life.” “Destiny,” “the imagination”—the concepts cover the primary concept, which is Durrell’s artistic vision of turning “daily life” into lasting art. Which in itself is not something to squabble with, but why the excess rhetoric? He goes on: “Otherwise why should we hurt one another?” I take this rhetorical question to refer to the promiscuous sexuality presented in the novel. The “hurt” is the urge to turn prosaic daily life into something literary and lasting, but this sentence’s intention escapes me. Nevertheless the question implicates the problem of art with the shallow egotism of daily life—as if they were on the same level, perhaps the same thing; streams of the same river. The egotism of the modern writer leaves its trace, only to become more apparent.
Darley writes of his lovers: “the remission I am seeking…is not one I shall ever see in the bright friendly eyes of Melissa or the…gaze of Justine.” The sentence negates; the “remission” is not physical, but one of memory. More specifically, Darley seeks to control his memory of the women: “in this, the great fragmentation of my maturity I feel the confines of my art and my living deepened immeasurably by the memory of them. In thought I achieve them anew, as if only here…can I enrich them as they deserve.” What is enriched, the women or Darley’s memory of them? I think the latter. And what to make of the “great fragmentation of my maturity”? Sometimes the more one learns, the less sure of one’s bearings one is. But a weakened sense of self yet leads the way: “I feel the confines of my art and my living deepened…by the memory of them.” Memory, and its recall, so important to the structure of Justine, is much like dreaming: a solitary pursuit. And a pursuit that leads Darley not to a nostalgia of Justine and Melissa themselves, but for his memory of them—as if to see them in person again would ruin his memory. He writes, “In thought I achieve them anew…only here can I enrich them as they deserve.” It needn’t be said that the phrases “achieve them” and “enrich them” turn on an interesting sense of ownership, authority, and the self (as in: the self in relation to the other). For Darley, “thought” is the place where the self and art connect to recreate meaning from memory, in the egotistical exercise of modern ecriture and art.
The following offers us a model for what this might look like: “So that the taste of this writing should have taken something from its living subjects—their breath, skin, voices—weaving them into the supple tissues of human memory.” I’m imagining Darley seeing Justine, taking in the sight of her, and filtering out the memory onto the page, the writer’s work of art. Great writers really steal, then. Physical characteristics like “breath, skin, voices” are projected by the artist into “the supple tissues of human memory.” Luckily, Darley (and Durrell) have a publisher’s note to protect themselves from any copyright questions.
Then, perhaps the inevitable Frankenstein question: “I want them to live again to the point where pain becomes art…” (emphasis added). The excerpt, I believe, problematizes modern art in a similar way that other works complicate modern science. The question is not how but when excess power will be used for egotistical ends. Perhaps the horror lies in the shocking fact that modern human can only become more bound up in the self. What comes after solipsism? The posthuman?
“Perhaps this is a useless attempt, I cannot say. But I must try,” Darley finishes the paragraph. There is a sense of duty here. And it may be true. The artist does have a duty to warp reality and project it through his or her personality. And in this, remind us of where we stand collectively, no matter how focused on our selves we may seem. But most interestingly, all this egotism of the writer leads us to reflect that we’re playing Lawrence Durrell’s game. A later novel in the Alexandria Quartet refers to Darley as “that schoolteacher.” If the hyper-focus on the figure of the writer (his voice, his memory, his ego) has any emollient, it may indeed lie in the work of art itself, in another form.
In the end, Justine illustrates the ambivalent nature of modern life. We chastise ourselves for selfishness, yet seek out our wants. We seek to make boundaries to define our individual selves, but at the same time long for connection to others. Justine is a novel of love, the artist’s craft, and memory. Writing of Justine, Darley says:
As we talked we insensibly drew nearer and nearer to each other until we were holding hands, or all but in each others' arms: not from the customary sensuality which afflicts lovers but as if the physical contact could ease the pain of self-exploration. (134)
The later novels show that Darley is totally incorrect; Justine has reasons he does not know about. But the image brought about—“as if the physical contact could ease the pain of self-exploration”—seems apropos, an image of Darley and Justine drawing nearer to one another while simultaneously pulling away to introspection. Justine does not make one feel; it makes one want to feel in order to know the boundaries of the self in order to surpass them—to better the self such that its little ego is no more: the perennial spiritual need.
Durrell, Lawrence. Justine. New York: Penguin, 1985.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online. Definition of “fugue.” Accessed 6 March 2006.