Gifford, James. "The Search To Know And Colonize Death In Monsieur: Reflections Of Otto Rank and Anticipations of Ernest Becker In the Quintet." On Miracle Ground XI: Durrell On Corfu. Conference of the International Lawrence Durrell Society. Ionian Cultural Centre at Faliraki, Corfu, Greece. 4 Jul. 2000. Online. 2 Nov 2001. http://www.ualberta.ca/~gifford/publicationscorfu.htm. Date you read this page.

© James Gifford
gifford@ualberta.ca



The Search To Know And Colonize Death In Monsieur:
Reflections Of Otto Rank and Anticipations of
Ernest Becker In the Quintet

This paper was presented for On Miracle Ground XI -- Durrell On Corfu, the conference of the International Lawrence Durrell Society, on June 4, 2000, in the Ionian Cultural Centre, Corfu Greece. An extended and corrected version of this paper was published as:

Gifford, James. "The Phenomenology of Death: Considering Otto Rank, Ernest Becker And Herbert Marcuse In Lawrence Durrell's Avignon Quintet." Lawrence Durrell Revisited : Lawrence Durrell revisité. Ed. Corinne Alexandre-Garner. Confluences. XXI. Nanterre, France: l'Université Paris X Nanterre, 2002. 13-38.


James Gifford wrote his MA thesis at California State University Dominguez Hills on epistemological skepticism in the novels of Lawrence Durrell. He holds a BA from Simon Fraser University, where he studied English and Education, and has completed a Post-Baccalaureate Diploma in Humanities through the same school. James has also taken a Diploma in Music at Kwantlen University College and has studied music performance at the University of British Columbia and the Opera Studio of the Victoria Conservatory. He is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Alberta, where he divides his time equally between literature and music. He is currently studying the role of the philosophy of history in Twentieth Century novels.

ABSTRACT: Images of death are prevalent throughout Durrell's oeuvre, appearing in a multiplicity of forms ranging from the physical to the Foucauldian death of madness. Despite its recurrence and thematic significance, death remains a mysterious question hanging over Durrell's fictions, distanced from the knowable by a phenomenological uncertainty that keeps both the dead and the living from a 'direct apprehension' of death or the hyper-reality of it. In conjunction with this uncertainty, related to the broader epistemological skepticism at work in these novels, the lingering influence of Otto Rank can be detected in the trauma associated with the existential incompatibility death is shrouded in, and the varying methods shown for psychologically repressing this trauma. This is the same subject broached by Ernest Becker in his nearly posthumous The Denial of Death, which is highly derivative of Rankian views. Durrell's works may be appropriately viewed through this theoretical framework due to his early interest in Rank's writings, and connection through Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, as well as his long-term contemplation of both death and psychoanalysis in general. This reading of the images and anxieties surrounding death in Monsieur also makes a comparison to Herbert Marcuse's social psychoanalysis in Eros and Civilization both relevant and revealing. Leaving aside multiplicity, death as an act becomes one of the unknowable factors that brings about and emphasizes epistemological skepticism. This skepticism returns to the subject of death, and creates within it the ultimate limitation of knowledge. In this manner, the postmodern deconstruction of the artifice of art is transposed into the reader's 'real life' world through the universal question of death, and its ultimately unexperienceable nature. As a result of this enforced 'improvisation' surrounding death, those who cannot embrace uncertainty react to it as a trauma, and attempt to "colonize it" or "enter into it while their hearts are still beating" (Avignon 22), projecting the anxiety of the uncertain into that which can be known and hence controlled or colonized. This repression or denial of death through a projection of it and various immortality/self-authorship projects appears throughout Monsieur and the quintet as a whole through life-limiting neuroses in the manner described by Becker and Rank.


"It made me sort of on equal terms with death - I realised that it did not exist" (Avignon 546)
"Even death has its own precise texture, and the big philosophers have always entered into the image of the world it exemplifies while still alive, so to become one with it while their hearts were still beating. They colonised it." (Avignon 21)

Avignon, in Lawrence Durrell's Monsieur, becomes a city of uncertainty where the living meet with the dead and the fictional converses with the real. Durrell creates a situation which makes it necessary for the reader to adopt a stance of epistemological skepticism; not an academic skepticism, but one which continues to search while realizing that the assumptions such a search is based on are uncertain. This is done through an ongoing multiplicity that separates each of the five books of Monsieur and by creating a sense of unreality surrounding concepts of death and dying. Leaving aside multiplicity, death as an act becomes an unknown that brings about and emphasizes epistemic skepticism, which returns to the subject of death and creates within it the ultimate limitation of knowledge. In this manner, the deconstruction of the artifice of art is transposed into the reader's 'real life' world through the universal question or anxiety of death and its ultimately inexperienceable nature. Most significantly, this limitation on knowing emphasizes the functional aspects of knowledge that act to repress or defuse death-anxiety in the form described by Otto Rank and further detailed by Ernest Becker. The colonization of death is the construction of absolutes in knowledge and--according to Rank--is derivative of humanity's fear of the unknown; death being that which is intrinsically not of the self. Hence, it is colonized and known only through projection. We, and Durrell's characters, colonize it by projecting it into a process or act which we can know. Additionally, this codification of death-anxiety is closely linked to Durrell's socioeconomic critique in The Revolt of Aphrodite, but this sense of it is still present in the Avignon Quintet. Durrell's fictionalization of Rankian psychoanalysis thereby creates a space where the social sphere acts as an engine in the repression of death-anxiety through the social construction of immortality projects or projections of death which are then socially controlled. Moreover, this social aspect is remarkably similar to that described by Herbert Marcuse in Eros And Civilization.

In "Outremer" the reader finds Bruce pacing a train car while his train of thought runs through the varying aspects of death which have confronted him. Piers is mysteriously dead and Sylvie is in the asylum of Montfavet. Sylvie's madness is another exploration of the variations of death, where madness equates with the death of the self. Throughout this first segment of Monsieur the reader is confronted with death after death, but each takes place outside of the action of the novel. No one death is ever observed or known, with each containing a question regarding reality and circumstances, and thereby linked with the theme of uncertainty. Piers may have been murdered--ritually or accidentally--or may have committed suicide. This is not to mention intimations that he may not be dead. The clues of the mystery novel add up to no conclusions, just as Sylvie's madness, a personal form of death, is unexplored and is within the space available to skepticism. Her fall from life and her occasional 'risings' through periods of remission are left outside the reader's observations. Unanswered questions also surrounds the authors who wrote the three into existence. Rob Sutcliffe has died in a suicide or drunken accident on his horse. Lastly, Bruce too has a vague sense of dying, which is only hinted at. He

must hurry a bit also, for a personal shadow has fallen into step with [him], a more prosaic medical one which [he] can hold at bay for a while with the needle. But [he is] playing [his] hand slowly so as not to risk deserting Sylvie if [he] can help it. (Avignon 15)

Most significantly, the reader is made to continue with the novel without gaining any sense of knowledge or truth about the situations surrounding death and even reality in general. None of the various possibilities surrounding death are ever given a sense of truth, and are allowed to remain multiplicitous. In this manner, death is the first vehicle--and the most important after the direct challenge to the reality of the novel--which Durrell uses to draw us to a state of epistemological skepticism. This state is in direct conflict with the construction of absolutes to appease death-anxiety within social frameworks, and likewise, it challenges the surrogate action of dominating its projections of death. Indirectly, the state of skepticism questions the 'truths' necessary to the formation of civilization. This is the point of convergence between Durrell's fictions and the theory of Marcuse in an economic sense, and Becker and Rank in a psycho-sociological frame. Durrell's call for provisionality and improvisation over certainty and truth relates to Marcuse's depiction of the hope of freedom from repression, which is derivative of his outlining of the relationship between time-consciousness and mortality anxiety. This association also closely links Marcuse to Becker through the question of the separation of the self from the world and time.

In order to clarify this convergence of thought, let us examine Piers' death. It occurs prior to the opening of the novel with Bruce in transit to Avignon for the funeral. To confuse the simplicity of death, Piers' moment of becoming a point in time, rather than a continuity, is clouded. His connection with a gnostic sect in Egypt becomes one of the focal points in the brief police investigation into his death, whereby it is revealed that he believed in a religiosity where accepting death is the primary means to confronting the Devil's ownership of the physical world. Piers' world is one where "All individual deaths had been resumed by the death of God!" (Avignon 8). This view of the world and of death leads to a doubting of the truth of observations due to the Devil's lies or the layering of multiple perspective based realities atop each other. For Piers, embracing the reality of the Devil requires a rejection of societal truths, as they become arbitrary reflections of the multiplicitous Prince of Darkness; however, this realization is also the essence of the Cartesian dualism which Becker shows is behind the bittersweet gift of the repression of death-anxiety; an unavoidable repression which Marcuse describes as the foundation for social control over the individual.

Piers' undefined gnostic faith, as elaborated in 'Macabru' and in the remainder of the Quintet, posits that the earthly world is the work of the Devil, not God. As such, earthly reality becomes unreal in the extreme and represents the trap which we are caught in. This separation of mind from body becomes "a secret way of transcending [physicality], of turning [it] to account" (Avignon 142), or more specifically the gnostic suicide of "acceptance, to join finally the spiritual trust of the mature who have tasted the world to the full and wish to be purged of the physical envelope" (Avignon 142). This presents an alternative view of Piers' death. It is a ritual act committed to mitigate the unreality of his world and its ordering, both of which are later revealed to be completely unreal, as his world is a novel.

As with most religious activities, a certain level of disbelief in the world as it appears is to be expected; however, with Piers' gnostic position, "the conformity of matter to models or modes is very precarious and not subject to causality" (Avignon 165). Moreover, he is "protected from the full consciousness of [man's] own natures--and consequently from that of the real world" (Avignon 164)--by a cataract-like diminishment of the reality of observations. This is an expression of the subject/object relation, where any real-world object is presumably linked by a causal chain to one's apparent-world percepts. Piers' religion is a questioning of the validity of this causal chain and treads "a very narrow path between reality and illusion in this view of things" (Avignon 164). Nonetheless, from Piers' religiosity, this uncertainty in the world is traded for a certainty in death. Piers barters his life in exchange for a resolution of his death-anxiety, and the opportunity to colonize death "With his heart still beating" (Avignon 21).

This gnostic control over death through ritual suicide provides another place of congruence to the theory of Rank and Becker, as it is primarily a means to colonize or control death. Rank argues that

all religion [springs] from the most powerful fear in man - not so much his fear of natural death as of final destruction. Yet the actual creative force expressing man's belief in personal immortality as against racial survival appears as a manifestation of his will for eternal survival. (Beyond 208)

His idea here is not psychoanalytic, but more properly philosophic anthropology; however, it leads back to the psyche through an examination of the psychology of religion. Durrell's representations in the Quintet bear out a similar distinction growing from death-anxiety as the source of religion to the psychological way in which religion deals with death. Initially, suicide would seem to contradict this, except that this ritualized death presented by Durrell is given a value, thereby transporting the victim beyond final destruction of the self and the turning in the trap of Monsieur. Rank also expands on this point, claiming:

man is primarily not concerned with biological succession, either personally of socially. Primitive man is entrenched in what seems to us an obsession with personal immortality. (Beyond 202)

Piers' suicide, in this sense, is the immortality project or framework that represses his death anxiety. The death of physicality is secondary to the survival of the self.

Becker refines these Rankian concepts into the realm of epistemology, through a reminder of the pairing of bodilyness and death within the subject of knowledge. Becker argues

Sex is of the body, and the body is of death. [This is his explication of the Rankian revision of Freudian sexual theory.] As Rank reminds us, this is the meaning of the biblical account of the ending of paradise, when the discovery of sex brings death into the world. As in Greek mythology too, Eros and Thanatos are inseparable; death is the natural twin brother of sex. (Denial 162)

First, Genesis places the apple of knowledge within a sexual context. This form of knowledge must be that of sexual differentiation, which Becker earlier describes in his reconciliation of Freudian psychology to Rank's questions on mortality. Becker writes

The horror of sexual differentiation is a horror of "biological fact"..... It is a horror of assuming an immense new burden, the burden of the meaning of life and the body, of the fatality of one's incompleteness, his helplessness, his finitude.... It expresses the realization [that man] is saddled with an impossible project; that the causa-sui pursuit on which he is launched cannot be achieved. (Denial 41)

In this manner, sexuality becomes an anxiety through the knowledge of differentiation, which in turn rewrites the castration complex and Oedipal drama as aspects of the realization of physicality and mortality, and the self-authorship project. With Becker's take on anality one is no longer an angel of ego, but a creature where the self is locked within--and is indistinguishable from--the mortal envelope; angels who shit, as he markedly phrases. Through this channel knowledge, codification, classification and epistemic necessities are the symptoms of this neurotic repression, while uncertainty and the construction of the Cartesian duality breaking self from body fuel the awareness of mortality and the anxiety surrounding it. These can only be repressed at great personal cost, which for Piers is literally mortal; a limitation on living.

In the will-based aspects of Rankian psychology, Piers is both making death into an act of will-ful choice and projecting it onto an Other: the body, which is not of the self. He thereby resolves the anxiety rather than remaining helpless to that which he cannot control, which would be a denial of the ego. Moreover, by integrating Becker's thesis this situation also contains the troublesome separation of mind from body, with the unreality of physicality--the realm of death--nicely distanced from the reality of the mind. The death of the self (the primary anxiety) is projected onto the unreal exterior body (death of the body), hence resolving the anxiety over mortality, but creating the life-limiting disdain for physicality. In a Marcuse-based analysis, this exchange of true freedom and uncertainty for the comfort afforded by the repression of this anxiety "introduces a repressive element into all libidinal relations" leaving Piers or man in general "resigned before society forces him to practice resignation methodically" (Eros 231). Durrell makes all these readings meaningful by forcing the reader's attention to the real-world versus apparent-world theory of mortality and thereby questioning the conventions of denial. Only by breaking down and examining denial, can the discourse of death be made meaningful.

When relating Piers' 'waterbiography' to his death map (an attempt to know and colonize death), Bruce describes the intellectual consciousness of death, even during life, as the means to becoming a fully aware personality. More specifically,

The realisation of one's own death is the point at which one becomes adult.... [Piers] hoped to extract the essential philosophic meaning which would, so to speak, enlighten his own coming death and enable him to write of it with insight and truth. (Avignon 40, emphasis added)

As with any attempt to break from the epistemic skepticism that is innate in postmodern ideologies, no concrete results can be achieved. To use the metaphor of God and the Devil, the absolute and unconditionally true body of knowledge represented by concepts of God cannot intervene in the multiplicitous and perspective-based reality of the Devil, hence the desire for truth against death or the provisional. It is only in being conscious of death, an apparent absolute truth, that characters such as Piers try to slip out of the trap at the last possible moment. Unfortunately, death itself also remains a unobservable event which the person going through it can never actually experience. The moment of death is the termination of observation. This negates the construction of knowledge by the one completing the process, leaving the moment of enlightenment and realization outside of the analytic influence of memory. The mystery of Avignon, where the dead and living meet, ultimately retains its elusiveness and innately resists the knowledge and power based colonial efforts, just as no colonial nation can ever truly 'know' its Other. Unfortunately, the colonization of Death as a resolution of death-anxiety abandons the pioneer at his hour of greatest need.


Works Cited

Becker, Ernest. The Denial Of Death. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997.

Marcuse, Herbert. Eros And Civilization. Boston: The Beacon Press, 1955. Toronto: Saunders of Toronto Ltd., 1966.

Durrell, Lawrence. The Avignon Quintet. London: Faber & Faber, 1992.

Rank, Otto. Beyond Psychology. Philadelphia: E. Hauser, 1941. Toronto: General Publishing Co., 1958.


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