Gifford, James. "Reevaluating Postcolonial Theory in Lawrence Durrell's
Alexandria Quartet" Literary Studies and Global Culture. University
of Victoria, Department of English. 16-17 Mar. 2001. Online. 2 Nov 2001.
http://www.ualberta.ca/~gifford/textsvictoria.htm. Date you read this
Reevaluating Postcolonial Theory in
This paper was presented for the Literary Studies and Global
Culture conference at the University of Victoria in March 2001.
James Gifford James' original biography from 2000 was too ridiculously old to leave here. He has a PhD in English from the University of Alberta, MA in Humanities from CSUDH, Post-baccalaureate in Humanities and BA in English from Simon Fraser University, and a Diploma of Music from Kwantlen University College. He also studied Music at the University of British Columbia. He studied opera at the Victoria Conservatory and is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Victoria. He thinks it's silly to leave such old material online, but this page gets more hits than anything else, even when there's nothing on it...Abstract
Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet has posed a difficult problem to the literary canon: how should one read the self-conscious creation of differing global perspectives (and readings of Others) within a context of Foucauldian order-construction, Nietzsche's single world assertion, and epistemic uncertainty? As a result, it remains largely untaught and unread within the context of current theoretical models and academic approaches to reading. Those relatively few scholars who have taken modern views on postcolonial theory to Durrell's work often fix it firmly within the territory of colonial writings filled with disturbingly unabashed depictions of the Oriental Other and bold assertions of the artist's colonization through 'knowing' in the act of writing. My paper is a writing-back at these postcolonial readings of Durrell's Alexandria Quartet and I am additionally suggesting that Durrell's self-reflexive treatment of the author as fabulator both anticipates much of postcolonial theory in the form depicted by Edward Said and problematizes its oversimplification of the difficulty of epistemology within a knowledge-power relationship. I do so within the context of Nietzsche's critique of the erroneous 'real' versus 'apparent' world distinction -- a problem explicitly discussed by Durrell -- and it is through this approach that Durrell's modernist novel takes on the postmodern mantle of self-conscious perspectivalism.
Following this examination of Durrell's questioning of the veracity of any non-fabulatory representation or observation of an Other -- wherein such an Other tends to take on the repressed attributes of the Same -- I pose the thesis that a reader cannot begin to address the knowledge-power relationship intrinsic in postcolonial readings without first questioning the epistemological (and even general philosophic) stance of the analyzed material. Durrell's work goes to great lengths to throw the reader "back upon his own resources -- which is ultimately where every reader belongs" (Balthazar 143) within a self-reflexive context that adopts as a 'given' the position that "the artist... [tries to] impose a pattern upon [the represented] which he infects with his own meanings" (Balthazar 175). Accepting this reading of the Alexandria Quartet in conjunction with Nietzsche's deconstruction of the dual world dilemma, I demonstrate how such an acceptance problematizes postcolonial theory both in this specific application and in a more general sense of epistemic credulity.
I hope that this paper picks up on some of the common themes that we have seen in the previous panels. Specifically, the recurrent focus on corporeality and mortality, which seems to be an unintended addition to each paper in the question period, and the paired problem of perceptual accuracy.
To begin, I realize that most people here will not be familiar with the works of Lawrence Durrell. For this reason, I feel justified in taking a sequentialized approach to the subject matter, beginning with Nietzsche's discussion of the error of envisioning a 'real' versus an 'apparent' world, and leading to Durrell's working out of this error through the unreliability of his fiction and the confusion of his characters: Nietzsche being one of Durrell's major influences. The primary purpose of my approach is to critique the narrow application of postcolonial theory, done without a sense of its epistemological assumptions. To make this point, I will be focusing my theoretical discussion on Edward Said's Orientalism, but with the acknowledgement that this limits the breadth and scope that postcolonial theory now covers. I am aiming at a general method, even though I am using restricted subjects.
In his chapter "'Reason' in Philosophy" from Twilight Of The Idols, Nietzsche demonstrates that an argument where the "senses, which are so immoral as well,... deceive us about the real world" (Twilight 45; emphasis original) conflicts with any skepticism in regard to the 'real.' The argument being contradicted here is one that supports the senses' error in reportage of a true external reality, but where the 'real' external world may correctly be said to exist. Instead, Nietzsche discusses the duality of the 'real' versus the 'apparent' and offers the counter argument that "the 'apparent' world is the only one: the 'real' world has only been lyingly added" (Twilight 46; emphasis original). There is not simply an error in reportage between the two realms, but a more problematic error of assuming the duality of an internality and externality. Such an assumption is necessarily outside the scope of the mind; we cannot discuss the flawed reportage of that which we do not have access to. To this it may be added, "facts [are] precisely what there [are] not; [there are] only interpretations" (Will to Power 267); however, this statement is itself and interpretation and not a fact. More explicitly, the world that we call 'percepts of reality' should, more properly, be reality. Attempts to posit that one's percepts are linked by a causal chain to some form of an external 'real' world are both impossible and meaningless by definition. Dave Robinson sequentializes this argument, beginning with the suggestion that perceptions may be in error. This necessitates that humans "can only ever have phenomenological knowledge" (Robinson 57), and therefore "talk of 'noumenal'... worlds makes no sense... because all we can experience are our own private phenomenal worlds" (Robinson 57). If this follows, then the 'real' world of the dualism created by Platonic metaphysics is an error of asserting cause without evidence as it is both "unprovable and superfluous.... [, and hence,] to talk about this [world], as if it were the 'apparent' one, is a pernicious error" (Robinson 58).
Additionally, the basis or impetus for this dualism or the supposed 'real' and the experienced 'apparent' is described as connected to language through the
presuppositions of the metaphysics of language - which is to say, of reason. It is this which sees everywhere deed and doer; this which believes in will as cause in general; this which believes in the 'ego', in the ego as being, in the ego as substance, and which projects its belief in the ego-substance on to all things. (Twilight 48; emphasis original)
The motivation for these presuppositions is defined as connected to fear of the unknown when Nietzsche argues "the cause-creating drive is thus conditioned and excited by the feeling of fear" and subsequently "to trace something unknown back to something known is alleviating, soothing, gratifying and gives moreover a feeling of power" (Twilight 68). These impetuses of fear and gratification are bound up in the conventions of denial through projection, and this will form my connection to both postcolonial theory and Said's use of Foucauldian theory of power and knowledge. The error of constructing causality, or "deed and doer" (Twilight 48), is a fear-provoked projection such that a thing may be dealt with as exterior to the self. Nietzsche's example is the way "the Greek knew and felt the terror and horror of existence. That he might endure this terror at all, he had to interpose between himself and life the radiant dream-birth of the Olympians" (Birth of Tragedy 8).
This point acts as a double entry to Durrell's work via the psychoanalyst Otto Rank, whose work may be familiar through Ernest Becker of the more recent empiric work in Terror Management Theory. Rank describes this "terror and horror of existence" in Nietzsche as an existential anxiety fastened to the primary awareness of death. Like the papers yesterday that made so many fruitful comments on corporeality, for Rank the body, as the region of death, is an 'Other' and perhaps the ultimate Other since it problematizes the death-denying project of self-transcendence via culture. In Lacanian terms we might call this the intrusion of the capital 'R' Real into the small case 'r' reality. An Other intrinsically challenges the anxiety-buffering function of the Same, which leads us back into the issue of projection. I am arguing that it is in this sense that Lawrence Durrell takes up Nietzsche's fear-driven cause-creating drive. To speak of a reality other than the one consisting of one's percepts is entirely an anxious construction; such a world does not exist for humanity. Whether it exists apart from humanity is superfluous, "for between two absolutely disparate spheres as subject and object there can be no connections which are causal, precise or expressive" ('On Truth' 20). Nietzsche continues this argument by further defining 'truth' and 'truth of the real' world as purely linguistic. Inconsistency and fabrication are definitive of human reality for it is nothing more than language--language which itself is "an umbrella: we hold it up to shield ourselves from awareness that the universe is at best indifferent and at worst hostile" (Hayman 20). At this point, it is useful to summarize that Nietzsche argues for a direct relationship between representation and reality as necessarily a construction of a non-realizable externality, based on a fear driven desire for power through the ordering and knowing of that which is both unknown and impossible to know.
Moving into the discussion of the Alexandria Quartet, Durrell explicitly takes up the same questions Nietzsche presents: Nietzsche being a constant referent in his correspondence at the time. The first volume, Justine, does not reveal an explicit multiplicity of perspective until it begins to be rewritten in Balthazar. Nonetheless, a sense of phenomenological uncertainty or wariness about representing an external world lies in the novel's imagery and commentary. In the opening segments a multiplicity of personality is alluded to. Darley, the narrator, remembers Justine
sitting before the multiple mirrors at the dressmaker's..., and saying "Look! five different pictures of the same subject. Now if I wrote I would try for a multi-dimensional effect in character, a sort of prism-sightedness. Why should not people show more than one profile at a time?" (Justine 27)
The mirror is a constant theme throughout the Quartet, and Justine's "multi-dimensional effect in character" (Justine 27) is exactly the structure and characterization expressed by Durrell. This scene prefigures the literary form of the first three novels, where characters reveal more than one profile of the multiplicity they contain within the construct of the discrete personality. The Justine presented by Darley, Balthazar, the third person narrator of Mountolive, and a more mature Darley in Clea, are all very different profiles of what the reader assumes to be the same person. Balthazar also opens with an inscription describing the mirror paired with constructions of reality. The text from Sade reads: "The mirror sees the man as beautiful, the mirror loves the man; another mirror sees the man as frightful and hates him; and it is always the same being who produces the impressions" (Justine 10).
In addition to these phenomenological questions and the reflexive mirror world of memory, Alexandria is the city of the great library, whose inhabitants are still dedicated to knowledge. Knowledge of the world becomes a ruling question in all four novels and implicates issues of epistemology. In regard to Justine, Darley is aware that "Nobody - possibly not even Nessim - knew all about her with any certainty" (Justine 61). Justine herself is not sure, for she is "concealing a ravenous hunger for self-knowledge" (Justine 71). Within this situation of uncertainty, the 'truth' of the fragmented Justine is beyond the scope of knowledge available to each character, including herself. "The transforming screens of memory" (Balthazar 226) and constructions of the selfhood (refuting concepts of the discrete ego) add to the interrogation of perception and knowledge.
In furtherance of this phenomenological approach to indeterminacy, follows one of the most quoted portions of the Quartet; the character Balthazar remarks
"We live... lives based upon selected fictions. Our view of reality is conditioned by our position in space and time.... And as for human characters, whether real or invented, there are no such animals. Each Psyche is really an ant-hill of opposing predispositions. Personality as something with fixed attributes is an illusion. (Balthazar 14)
This particular phrase was significant enough to Durrell's philosophical contentions in the novel for him to repeat it nearly verbatim. It is also argued the characters should cease to search for absolutes. Describing Nessim, Balthazar comments "I suppose he was only hunting for the truth. Isn't this becoming rather a ridiculous remark? We should drop it by common consent!.... Fact is unstable by its very nature. Narouz once said to me that he loved the desert because there 'the wind blew out one's footsteps like candle-flames'. So it seems to me does reality" (Balthazar 102). The footsteps being blown out are the constructions of causality, leaving one to accept each percept without intruding on questions of truth, sequence, cause or relationships. When the mind constructs the footprints to explain the man standing in the desert, the assertion follows: "Reality... was always trying to copy the imagination of man, from which it derived" (Balthazar 116). To this, it is added, "how, I wonder, has the artist the temerity to try and impose a pattern upon [reality] which he infects with his own meanings?" (Balthazar 175)
Regarding the self's constructive influence over its percepts and the necessary distance between subject and object, Durrell comments:
our observations are dogged by the subjective element. Man is simply a box labelled personality. He peers out of the box through five slits, the senses. On this earth he is permitted access to three dimensions of space and one of time. Only in his imagination can he inhabit the whole - a reality which is beyond the reach of intellectual qualification: a reality which even the greatest art is incapable of rendering in its full grandeur. It is ridiculous and humiliating situation but we must accept it, and be content with our provisional truths, our short-range raids on this greater territory which permeates our inner lives. (Key 5)
This provisionality of truth due to the uncertainty inherent in perception forms the essential impetus for Durrell's expression of the conflict between social, physical and personal realities. In the conclusion of Balthazar, Pursewarden declares "I think it is better for us to steer clear of the big oblong words like Beauty and Truth and so on. Do you mind? We are all so silly and feeble-witted when it comes to living, but giants when it comes to pronouncing on the universe" (Balthazar 239). In addition to the false ordering of percepts to form meaning and knowledge of the unknowable external Other, there is a contention over both the comprehension and construction of their significance. Darley gives his affair with Justine the significance of an expression of love, but Balthazar reveals it was a decoy from her 'real' love for Pursewarden. This is how epistemological skepticism dominates each of the four novels, with each volume offering a redefinition and reconstruction of the significance of the same (mis)perceived events. Perception is absolutely personal, without the context of a 'real' or absolute truth outside the internal frame of referents. Moreover, this 'apparent' provisional world is constructed through the giving of meaning in the Foucauldian ordering or tabulating process, paralleling Nietzsche's fear-provoked cause-creating drive, producing "everywhere deed and doer" (Twilight 48). Darley realizes that even if he posits the existence of a causal chain between an external reality and his sensory percepts, he cannot claim any knowledge of its significance. This is paired with Balthazar's skeptical intimations that one cannot comprehend the whole schema, which would be universal. Knowledge is tainted by the mitigating effects of perspectivalism and the mind's tendency to construct meaning or order. In other words, interpretations without facts. This situation, where one's personal truth is more pertinently a reflection of the self rather than exterior reality, has widespread implications for both the aesthetic of the novel itself and its analysis in Postcolonial theory.
How then, do we apply Said's form of postcolonial theory to Durrell's novel, as so many critics have done? Among this group would be Bowen, Gwynne, Manzaloui and even Salmon Rushdie, although it is beyond my scope to discuss their persuasive readings at this point. Problematically, the Oriental Other is explicitly a construction, as is reality in general. Sensory reality becomes as much a discourse as Orientalism: an internal monologue in a context where any 'real' world is either multiplicitous or nonexistent. In this setting, representations of the Other can only function as a reflection of the observer. With respect to the reader who recognizes Durrell's invocation of skepticism, representations and positive claims to knowledge lose their objective power to define beyond the scope of the internality of the psyche, although as the postcolonial readings of Durrell attest, they retain their power to influence the reader who ignores this philosophical focus. Said contends Orientalism "has less to do with the Orient than it does with 'our' world" (Said 12), for it is a construct used to gain knowledge, and thereby power, over the Orient, since "to have... knowledge of such a thing is to dominate it, to have authority over it" (Said 32). In this context, Said and Durrell are in agreement that Occidental knowledge of the Orient becomes the Orient. Also, this knowledge is better "grasped as a set of constraints upon and limitation of thought than... a positive doctrine" (Said 32). As has already been mentioned in regard to Nietzsche, one's knowledge of a thing is best defined as the effect of one's cause-creating drive, which is prompted by the combination of percepts divorced from any 'real' world and the fear of the unknown that the alienated 'apparent' world entails, for "to trace something unknown back to something known is alleviating, soothing, gratifying and gives moreover a feeling of power" (Twilight 62). The position is highly akin to the knowledge-power equation in Said's Orientalism and Durrell's contention that "when you are afraid of something, or you want to hate it, you give it a name" ("Asylum" 261). Nonetheless, Orientalist discourse is defined as (mis)perception and the knowing of the Other through projection, although at this point we ought to rephrase 'misperception' to 'perception of the Other' and abandon the implication of an external 'real' world that is carried in the word 'misperception.'
Orientalist discourse constructs meaning out of perspective-based percepts, based on what is already internal to the observer. How, then, can any perception and subsequent recreation of the percept in a representation refute a power or 'colonial' relationship, since of necessity it does not convey a 'natural' actuality external to the observer. One can only render the percept meaningful within a construction of the Other based on characteristics internal to the Same? Moreover, since Durrell's works, via Nietzsche, share this foundation of a skeptical position, from which postcolonial theory is derived, how can we use postcolonial theory to analyze it? For both Nietzsche and Durrell, the resolution is an awareness of the phenomenal limitations of self and an abandonment of truthful representation or perception. All reality is only 'apparent,' and can have no recourse to a 'real world' beyond the internality of the self. One cannot cease perceiving, but one can desist in proclaiming one's percepts as representative of a 'real' world. In Russell's phrasing, a percept is a percept alone, and not a percept of something. As such, percepts and the meaning constructed from them constitute the totality of human reality: not some 'real' world beyond the immoral and lying senses. In using what we term 'theory,' we must be aware of its philosophic genesis and the subsequent limitations this genesis places on criticism and comparison. Using a position of epistemological skepticism to critique a statement that knowledge acts as misrepresentation, is redundant and contrary to the actual meaning of both.
Said's contention that an analysis of Orientalism "does not entail... what lies hidden in the Orientalist text, but analysis rather of the text's surface, its exteriority to what it describes" (Said 20), becomes vitally significant, for it is only in the very top layer and the cultural exteriority of Durrell's narratives that an Orientalist approach can be fashioned. As Durrell's philosophy of negative epistemological skepticism is expounded, the constructed nature of knowledge of both the Orient and the Occident is made plain to the reader. Superficially, the Alexandria Quartet is an Orientalist text in that it depicts the mystical Muslim world that exists primarily in the Western mind; however, this superficial image is quickly usurped by an Orient that is completely unknown and unknowable to that which is external. This fictional Orient "has less to do with the Orient than it does with 'our' world" (said 12), and has more to do with the varied and contradictory characters of the Quartet than any genuine reality.
I am questioning the level to which Said's analysis is possible in works where these distinctions in perception and knowledge of the external world are brought into doubt. In such a work, the superficiality that may suggest an Orientalist framework will be destabilized by what I see as a 'universalisation' of the Other. In the realm where the human mind's tendency to create oppositions meets with our eventual recognition of the necessarily constructed nature of all knowledge, a problem arises, whereby one becomes unsure of binary opposites and the possibility of a personal distinction between Self and Other. Essentially, once a person comes to believe that his or her internal knowledge of the world is suspect, he must then posit the likelihood that his construct is only an expression of the Self, or is largely derivative of such. The absolute reality of the exterior world, Oriental or otherwise, is ultimately unknowable. Our sense and knowledge of this world is by definition a representation of interiorities.
Darley's foreboding Alexandria is no more meant as a true representation of the Muslim or Coptic Orient, than Darley's construct of Justine is meant to be a depiction of her reality within the character world. Authorial intention cannot determine meaning, but such an intention of multiplicity and indeterminacy is made explicitly the subject of the work; hence, it is difficult to accept readings that rely on the politics of representation or the 'real' and 'apparent' phenomenological distinction. Throughout the Quartet, Justine is an ever-changing figure who Darley ultimately admits he has no real knowledge of. The Justine of his writings is an aspect of himself, not the 'real' Justine who exists 'out there somewhere' in the alienated external world. The same is naturally true of his construct of the Oriental Other.
For David Mountolive, a Diplomat who is trained to regard the Orient through the mental apparatus of his books and formal Arabic, the Orient explicitly comes alive through his unconscious desires. Egypt is "seen from the vantage point of someone inside the canvas his own imagination had painted, [and it is here Mountolive] had suddenly found the exotic becoming completely normal. Its poetry was irradiated by the unconscious with which it was lived" (Mountolive 22). Mountolive's Orientalist construct of Egypt and of his lover Leila Hosnani, are clearly shown to be different from the Egypt of Darley and Balthazar. It additionally differs from a possible exterior 'real world' through the mitigating influence of Mountolive's psychological predisposition. Moreover, in a rich and prominent sequence Mountolive's view of the brutal, sensual and thrilling Orient is immediately juxtaposed by Leila's Occidental construction of a sexualized and conquering Western Other. This creates a veil between the lovers; Mountolive himself versus Leila's perceptions and representations of Mountolive her English lover. When asked why she loves him, Leila textualizes her emotion by quoting her favourite English author, which the reader recognizes as John Ruskin's "Imperial Duty":
"There is a destiny now possible to us - the highest ever set before a nation to be accepted or refused. We are still undegenerate in race; a race mingled of the best northern blood...."
Through Leila's Occidentalism, Mountolive becomes fully aware of the psychological construction of other nations that occurs, but does not realize the influence of his own Orientalism in a likewise manner. Just as she fell in love with him because "[he is] English" (Mountolive 30), he fell in love with her because she is Egyptian and thereby embodies the sensual Orient that more accurately lurks in his own unconscious. This Leila is, from the reader's perspective, a denied or repressed aspect of Mountolive, rather than a genuine externality.
The depicted Oriental world is a shifting construct of multiple possibilities and personal dispositions. How an individual or a narrator sees this world is, by necessity, a reflection of that character. To take any single--or even frequent representation or lack of representation--and to then critique it as if it was intended as a form of absolute knowledge or natural representation would be entirely contrary to the spirit of a text traumatized by an epistemological crisis. Contrary to Said, I am also highly skeptical of the possibility of natural representation. For a work to be considered Orientalist, it must first be believed to contain knowledge, or it must contend so. In a work that systematically claims to contain no truths and only reflections of the varying states of an unstable ego, this condition is not met. As such, only a narrow reading that overlooks the core of the work may be properly considered Orientalist. This is certainly the case with Durrell's quartet. Travelers are often disappointed that Durrell's city bears little resemblance to Alexandria then, or now, just as the Copts and Muslims in the texts bear witness to the perspectival gaze of a withering Imperial power, rather than any genuine social and religious collective inside their own perspective; however, I am not claiming that such mis-readings are not without influence or power.
In these respects, a Said-inspired Orientalist interpretation of Durrell's fiction is neither plausible in all but the most superficial reading, nor realistic in its consideration of the author's aesthetic vision. This is despite apparent Orientalist content in the superficiality of images and constructed depictions in Durrell's works. Moreover, this gives us a method for understanding the limitations of our theoretical method, and where it doubles in on itself. Where Said states "in short, Orientalism is best grasped as a set of constraints upon and limitations of thought than it is simply a positive doctrine" (Said 42), he is perfectly correct for a text that represents a truth, or more accurately a text that presents itself as representing a truth; however, in the Alexandria Quartet, representations of the Other are elements of characterization, not an exotic setting or depiction. We must also be careful that our theoretical apparatus itself does not become "a set of constraints upon and limitations of thought" (Said 32). Postcolonial theory, as posited by Said in Orientalism, relies entirely on the contention by a reader or writer that a work in some manner represents a truth or reality, and that readers may use such a work to scrie knowledge and thereby power, but in Durrell's fictions knowledge is an even more unstable lie than Truth.
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