Leaving home and adolescence
In this essay I will explore the phenomenon of the concrete and symbolic event of leaving home as described in Durrell’s first novel. Leaving his birth place at the age of eleven years, as Durrell was when he was sent to England from India by his father, is a secret wound that, in psychoanalytic terms leaves a significant psychic trace upon the development of the psyche. I will explore such a trace as it reappeared in Durrell’s first novel Pied Piper of Lovers.
In the final paragraphs of Pied Piper, Clifton Walsh writes in a letter to his friend from his abode in an unnamed harbour village, or is it perhaps an island, that he is happy in his tiny cottage with his wife and children. He has found peace. “The light has gone and I’ve lighted a lamp to finish this. Outside it’s still white and silty. The cuff has put an elbow of chalk out of its furry green night-dress […] Tonight, later, I shall slip down to the sea and bathe. If there’s a moon. Good night.”
It is the kind of writing that readers of Durrell will surely recognise from later novels. Durrell uses the form of a letter to convey a message; he writes from a remote place to a distant but beloved friend, he uses beautiful descriptions of the nature around him. He writes from his Island of the Mind.
Writing about anything, is writing about loss. As Durrell writes: “It was as if the scene had been set for some sombre and tragic mood which would envelop his mind like a whirlwind and make it pour forth profound, immortal poetry: the poignant poetry of loss.”
The urge to write and the accompanying activity of the actual practice itself, involves dealing with something that is missing in the life of the writer at that particular time. This applies naturally to writers of prose, poetry and academic materials, but also, even more naturally to anyone engaging in writing a grocery list, noting what is missing from the fridge, larder and wine cellar. So, if writing, any kind of writing, is about loss, can we distinguish in this deconstructed and muddled time between different kinds of writing? What in this sense makes a novel a superior kind of writing to that of a grocery list? In other words, how deep does the wound need to be for the text to acquire less transient significance?
In his 1908 minor essay “Creative Writing and Day-dreaming”, Sigmund Freud tries to outline what it is that makes the individual a creative writer. What does such an individual possess, or what possesses him, to enable him to engage in the creative process, deemed by Western culture as the ultimate form of individual achievement?
Should we not look for the first traces of imaginative activity as early as in Childhood? The child’s best-loved and most intense occupation is with his play or games. Might we not say that every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or, rather re-arranges the things in his world in a new way which pleases him?
So, if the origins of the creative act, and the depth of the wound, are to be discovered and traced back to childhood, it is only natural that we should follow Freud’s suggestion and seek answers and insights regarding the interpretation of literary texts in the early lives of writers.
In this essay, I will read passages from Durrell’s first novel Pied Piper of Lovers, published in 1935 when he was twenty-three years old, having just left his what he later described as his exile in England, where he was sent by his Anglo-Indian parents at the age of eleven. I will read particular passages that in my opinion relate to the experience of leaving home, which I have explored elsewhere in my study of The Alexandria Quartet, where I endeavoured to show that Durrell’s project can be interpreted as seeking to form a homeland for himself through his writing as a way of dealing with what I termed as the The Secret Wound. When first using that term, I was still unaware of Richard Pine’s use of the term, so I take this opportunity to acknowledge his work on Durrell.
I am a clinical social worker practising amongst other things, psychoanalytic psychotherapy for my living. Rightly or wrongly, I tend to analyse what I come across in my life through psychoanalytic lenses. I use the term “lens” deliberately as I am also a photographer, so that I also tend to frame what I see and observe. In both practices, I seek meaning in what I observe, whether through reading a text or looking and listening to the world.
Meaning, Loss and Leaving home
The quest for meaning and loss are tightly intertwined in my view and can be linked to the leaving home experience, as I would like to diachronically demonstrate, with the work of two other writers who were forced to leave home.
In a letter to his colleague, Princess Marie Bonaparte (1882-1962) on 13 August 1937, a few months before he was forced to leave his beloved Vienna, fearing incarceration and worse by the Nazis, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) wrote:
The moment a man questions the meaning and value of life, he is sick, since objectively either has any existence; by asking this question one is merely admitting to a store of unsatisfied libido to which something else must have happened, a kind of fermentation leading to sadness and depression.
On the other hand, stands Aharon Appelfeld’s words in the preface to his autobiographical book The story of a life written in 1999, more than fifty years after he was able to escape Nazi-occupied Europe and thus survive:
This book is not a summary, but an attempt (and perhaps a desperate attempt) to integrate the different parts of my life and to reconnect them to the wellsprings of their being… Much has been lost and much corroded by oblivion. At first it seemed that very little remained, and yet, when I laid one piece alongside another, I saw that not only have they been made whole by the years, but they have even achieved some level of meaning. 
The two statements present a complex view of a central tenet in existential philosophy – the quest for meaning as a main motivational force in the life of the modern individual. I will therefore also explore the complexity raised by the issues raised in these two statements in relation to what Durrell wrote about in his first novel. I add these statements (where the quest for meaning is related to a sense of loss) to contextualise Durrell’s later effort in writing about his own sense of loss concerning leaving home. In his first novel, Durrell was perhaps too young, and therefore too close to the actual loss, to write about it openly, unlike the older Freud and Appelfeld who wrote those statements when they were both old men.
There are, of course, other differences. While Freud describes the preoccupation with meaning as resulting from loss as a pathological state of being, Appelfeld seems to be looking at the same relation between loss and meaning from what appears to be the opposite direction and describes the quest for meaning as a positive development, as achievement resulting from a struggle. But what at first appear as polarised positions and attitudes towards the relation between loss and meaning, will reveal more similarities in a closer examination of further reading in texts left by both men, and others, in relation to the main object which I will examine in their writing – leaving home.
Both men were forced to leave their homes during the second world war in circumstances that share some characteristics while also displaying some very significant differences. Appelfeld was nine years old when the Romanian army occupied his hometown, Jadova in Romania, in 1941, after a year in which the town was held by the Soviet army. He was deported from the town with his father, not before witnessing his mother being murdered on the street. He spent the war years in a forced labour camp from which he escaped and hid until the end of the war, after which he emigrated to Palestine where he spent the remainder of his days until his death in 2014. Freud was forced to leave Vienna in 1938 when he was eighty-two years old as the result of the Nazi occupation of the city and a growing sense of real and imminent danger to his well-being and life. He was helped to move to London with some members of his family by his friend and colleague Marie Bonaparte. He settled in London where he died a year later in 1939.
Leaving home, at any age under any circumstances, is an event that is bound to be remembered. Under normal circumstances, it can be seen as a natural occurrence and part of the maturational process each individual undergoes. Of course, the timing and the manner that characterise such an event vary greatly in different cultures and in different times. The Biblical proclamation that Abraham had to follow: “Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee,”(Genesis 12:1) is very different from the twenty-first century young man who leaves his home to join the army or university. It is of course markedly different in the case of the nine-years-old Appelfeld, eleven-years-old Durrell or the eighty-two-years-old Freud. And yet, the symbolic quality of such an event can be explored phenomenologically and diachronically as forming a particular category which defines the individual sense of belonging to a place-called-home.
Psychoanalysis and Literature
The interpretation of literature creates a unique meeting place where the biographical and the fictional elements converge. It is true that sometimes the biographical information about the author, for example, proves more dominant than the fiction he created, while at others, the opposite proves right and the work of fiction can be read with no prior knowledge of its biographical origin. Most interesting interpretations of texts offer some combination of the two, and it is hard to imagine the utter absence of either element from any literary analysis. Any attempt to present biographical details as purely objective data, devoid of fictional manipulation, ignores the fact that language is always a fictional and deliberate, albeit often unconscious, act of creativity.
The connection between psychoanalytic theory and the study of literature dates back to the early days of psychoanalytic theory and reflects the cultural background that Freud lived in. His classic education and the influences of German romanticism in his youth meant that literature was a source of inspiration for his ideas, as well as serving him with an arena to examine the validity of his ideas in his quest for a scientific base for his theories. Freud was acquainted, and corresponded, with contemporary writers, like Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), Thomas Mann (1875–1955), Arthur Schnitzler (1862–1931) and Stefen Zweig (1881–1942), and his writing was inspired by writers like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1932), Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805) and William Shakespeare (1564-1616). He used his analytic methods to interpret literary works so as to elaborate and demonstrate his ideas. In 1897, Freud performed the first psychoanalytic study of a text by the Swiss poet C. F. Meyer (1825–1898), claiming to have uncovered the poet’s repressed memory of a liaison with his sister. Freud was excited about the prospect of wielding psychoanalytic tools to analyse literary characters and pursued it throughout his career. He thought poetry and literature were even better positioned to reveal the innermost truthful nature of human beings than his own psychoanalytic theories, and argued that his earlier studies into hysteria and neurosis could be treated as short stories. He thought that the writer was an individual who had succeeded in transforming and sublimating his unconscious (sexual) phantasies without disturbing his mental balance. The writer creates a fictional world which he sets apart from reality. Writing serves as a mental space that glosses over the imperfections of reality.
Reading Pied Piper of Lovers as a work of fiction while being aware of the biographical elements that are intertwined into the narrative is the very process that allows us to follow the existential journey undertaken by Durrell as a writer.
Pied Piper of Lovers
Pied Piper of Lovers is considered by Durrell’s critics as his most autobiographical novel. It describes the birth and early years in India of the child, Walsh Clifton, and then his departure to England and the years spent there as a young man. The book is heavily relied upon and quoted by Durrell’s biographer, Ian S. MacNiven, to describe Durrell’s childhood, adolescence and early manhood.
Durrell neither wrote an autobiography nor kept an orderly diary, unlike his life-long mentor and friend Henry Miller whose work was deliberately and directly autobiographical. The apparent reason is that Durrell viewed that kind of writing as a waste of precious time he could dedicate to poetry, prose and play writing. He told Anaïs Nin, who kept a record of her entire life in a series of diaries, that his aversion to diary writing stemmed from his fear that such a pursuit would devour him. Whatever he had to say or write about his life could be found in his prose and poetry, he argued, thereby demonstrating the interweaving of biographical and fictional elements found in literature. Durrell thought that a writer must keep his personal experiences appropriately at bay if he were to be able to write. “You must make the leap outside of the womb, destroy your connection” he told Anaïs Nin; on which MacNiven comments on “his instinct for disguising the personal, even when employing the diary form in The Black Book.” So, this allows us, if indeed we need permission, to analyse this Bildungsroman novel as a disguised source, even perhaps referring to the Freudian term, a screen memory, upon which we can ponder when considering the event of leaving home in the context of Durrell’s life and work.
Durrell was well aware of Freud and psychoanalysis, as MacNiven wrote in his biography, “More than a mere revision of the events of his early life, Pied Piper was an important attempt by Larry at auto-analysis. He had been reading Freud diligently by 1934 and dabbling in the psychoanalysis of his family and friends.” In Pied Piper he makes a passing but telling comment: “All the greater tragedies of life happen within us – in our unconscious minds.” And then: “'Blame it all on Freud', he murmured.”
Pied Piper is composed of a prologue, three books and an epilogue. It is narrated by an undisclosed voice which does not mask his presence in the text but does not show its involvement. Is it Durrell himself, inserting himself here and there, as the narrative voice? Unlike later uses Durrell makes of the split-up and divergent narrative voices in future works such as the The Black Book and the Quartet, the narrative voice is rather consistent and uniform and yet leaving a slightly eerie feeling on the few occasions he turns to the reader and makes his presence known. The impression it creates is of an invisible presence, suddenly materialising, begging the question: who are you and where have you been all this time? That quality of the mostly silent narrative presence and yet at times intrusive is a minor glimpse of the uncanny underlying sense of the novel.
The term, Unheimliche, translated as the Uncanny, became central in Western culture since it was interpreted by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and denotes both homeliness and its opposite, strangeness. As Freud writes in his 1919 essay: “Heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, Unheimliche. Unheimliche is in some way or other a sub-species of Heimlich. Let us bear this discovery in mind, though we cannot yet rightly understand it.” Based upon his interpretation of a short story by the Prussian author E.T.A. Hoffman (1776–1822), Freud concluded that we tend to experience the Unheimliche sensation when we are not sure whether what we see is alive or dead, real or artificial. He suggested that that feeling originates from an early stage in the development of the infant when he invents a duplicate sense of himself in order to deal with terrifying events that he cannot integrate or understand with his budding rational faculties. The duplicate sense of self, later finding an echo in the term Doppelgänger, loses its functionality as we mature, but leaves its trace in the unconscious layers of our mind. Later in life, when we encounter complexities and ambivalences in our relation to, and perception of, the world around us, we are linked, according to Freud, to that relic in our minds and experience, the Unheimliche sensation. Whenever the safety of our home is undermined, when the regularity of our sensual being in the world is threatened, when the stability of our relationships is shaken, we are prone to regress to that earlier psychic stage where our self is still split, divided and unintegrated and we find ourselves looking at the mirror, real or imaginary, and wondering who is that stranger looking at me, as happened to Freud on a train journey, when he woke up in the middle of the night and was startled to see a strange face in front of him, only to realise seconds later that he was looking at himself in the bathroom mirror.
Where is mother?
The prologue of Pied Piper of Lovers relates the birth of a boy, who will later identify as Clifton. It is a dark scene. A country doctor is rushed to a hut during the monsoon season. There she finds John Clifton, the father, and an unnamed young half-caste woman, in an advanced stage of labour. The doctor’s figure dominates the opening pages of the prologue. Her thoughts are described in detail. But she disappears as swiftly as she appeared. Her genuine efforts were only partially successful: a boy is born but the mother, whose presence is almost non-existent and receives hardly any attention from the narrator, dies. And then, once the baby is delivered, the narrative turns to the business of death and coffin-making. Thus, the books opens with the grand themes of birth, life and death.
It is not an easy text to follow. The story line is unclear and only lightly hinted at. The scene descriptions are evocative and poetic and it is easy to be lost in the rich imagery, losing sense of what the story is about. It is the kind of poetic baroque writing that will later earn Durrell his fame but will later will also bring about a dismissal of his later work.
The Durrellian reader is puzzled. In this, most autobiographical, novel which has as it epitaph a dedication to Durrell’s mother, To my dear mother, but for whom…, the mother figures dies at the very beginning. Such a departure from a biographical narrative can raise a question as to the autobiographical nature of the work. But, as the book continues and relates the later years in the boy’s life in Kurseong in the region of Bengal, his train engineer father, John, and then the move to school in England, the resemblance to Durrell’s life is very loyal and reassures us that this is indeed both an autobiographical novel and a dabble in psychoanalytic auto analysis.
Durrell is indeed working out something through the writing of the death of the mother of baby Walsh.
Leaping ahead to a later period in Walsh’s life, we learn about his departure to England, to attend the proper school his father wishes for him. By that time, another female figure is introduced. Brenda, John’s sister, who arrives from England to support the widower and his son. She soon become a major influence in both their lives and finally accompanies Walsh upon his journey to England. There, she finds a house in Dulwich, as Durrell’s mother indeed did, and is a home for the young Walsh.
It seems that even though the narrator killed Durrell’s mother in the beginning of the novel, he reintroduces her through the figure of Brenda, John’s spinster sister, whose features and behaviour resembles very much what Durrell’s biographers tell us about the real flesh and blood Louisa Durrell.
It is indeed uncanny. The mother who has died, returns back to life.
Why would Durrell use such a twist of events regarding the figure of the mother? Why kill her at birth only to bring her back to life, metaphorically, later on, this time as a spinster lady without children of her own? What compulsive repetition, as Freud would have it, is here at play?
I would like to offer here a psychoanalytic interpretation. In his later years, Freud developed his drive theory so that it no longer included the single life drive and added to it another drive which he termed the death drive. Freud claimed from our birth that we are both motivated to seek pleasure and fulfilment of our needs and wishes while at the very same time, we are also driven by the wish to end those very needs and drives. Generally speaking, most of the time we live in an equilibrium between those two complementary forces, allowing us both to initiate and create while also allowing us to leave, depart and deal with loss. Only if one of the forces becomes too dominant, we are prone to pathology. Very briefly, Freud suggested that the psychic mechanism beyond that equilibrium is the compulsion to repeat, or in non-psychoanalytic terms, our regulatory, repetitive nature.
Back to Durrell, his mother and Pied Piper. As we know, Durrell’s mother died peacefully in England, many years after Durrell left India. From what is known from Durrell’s biographers and Durrell himself, she was a benevolent and caring mother and cherished Durrell throughout his childhood. The bond between them was strong and gave Durrell a very firm start in life. The home she created for him and the rest of the family in those early India years were the secure base every child needs and deserves. Being sent away to England shattered that secure base and safe bond and created a sense of paradise lost. Durrell longed to return to the safety of his childhood home for the rest of his life.
For Durrell, being sent away for his education was a total departure from his life up to that point. It was like entering a new and alien country where one would lose one's bearings in the world. His previous identity and sense of self would be transformed and he would find himself assuming a new shape. The timing too was carefully chosen. Durrell arrived at an age where his Indian environment started to infiltrate into his speech as well. According to his younger sister Margaret, it was the age when the soft, lilting Indian pronunciation of English started to insinuate itself into Durrell’s speech, and his father wouldn’t have it. It was of the uttermost importance that his son look and talk like a British gentleman rather than a little Indian. There was no room left to consider the emotional implications of this separation on the young boy or the entire family, at least not enough to affect the actual decision. While Louisa Durrell did at first raise her objection against him being sent to England, as she had done two years earlier, before his departure to Saint Joseph’s boarding school, she again failed to change the paternal decision. Durrell was, by his own later admission, a “spoilt” nine-year-old child, that is, a child who struggled to part from his mother. The boarding school summarily severed that tie while forcing him to cope with loneliness and jealousy of his younger siblings, Margaret and Leslie, left cushioned in their mother’s loving bosom. In one of his private conversations with MacNiven, while the biography was in the making, Durrell commented on his separation from his mother, in a rare revelation of pain: “I was terribly spoilt by my mother in India. Being exiled to England severed that bond.” In both cases, Durrell deemed the end result a betrayal and failure on his mother’s part to protect him. According to Gordon Bowker, this experience offers an important insight into Durrell’s sadistic treatment of his wives, lovers, daughter Sappho and other women. He continued to act out the inner drama of his parents’ betrayal with a sadistic, disparaging attitude to women in his life, while at the same time upholding an idealising façade of admiration to men, such as Miller, who served as father substitutes. As attested by his daughter Sappho:
Father ‘tells’ me directly and not so directly that sex is about sadism […] My childish question is why […] My malevolent (frightened) father’s answer is because women’s sexuality is too frightening and disgusting not to be punished by men [...] Because he hates himself so much he’s desperately trying to push this self-hatred on to me (women generally is the pattern).
MacNiven and Bowker alike cite Durrell’s being sent to England as the end of the freedom he enjoyed in childhood. The banishment to England was meant to symbolise his ancestral bond with the British homeland, but as Durrell would later write, the move achieved the opposite result and in fact imbued that homeland with dark and threatening connotations. From that time, homeland and home became unheimlich concepts for him, holding mainly ambivalence. In his last interview, conducted by Michael Dibdin at the behest of the Independent newspaper, Durrell said that, as far as his sense of belonging was concerned, he was doomed to a false life – neither Indian nor British, he had spent his entire life pretending about his identity and belonging. Durrell was separated from his family by the paternal imperative. This imperative dictates that the son must accept his father authority and follow in his footsteps: he must separate from his mother’s love, from his family and geographical homeland, from his natural living environment, in order to undergo the initiation processes that will make a man out of him, a British subject, part of the social class of his father and his father before him. For that purpose, the father himself is willing to separate from his beloved son; the same son he hopes will represent him in the world and carry the torch of his ways and culture, in the name of some abstract, vague ideal of belonging.
Thus, killing Walsh’s mother, a half-caste at that, at Walsh’s birth and then resurrecting her through the figure of his aunt, a clear specimen of the uncanny, is an expression of his ambivalence towards his mother which he found himself compelled to repeat through his torturous relationships with women in his life and the female characters he created in his novels.
The actual event of leaving home is not actually described in Pied Piper in a thorough way. It is almost totally absent. The clearest reference I could identify to it is in the opening pages of Book Two when the boy stands on deck of the liner which brought him to England. He finds himself looking at the Dover coastline and comments on the view of the hill to an Indian ayah who stands beside him. Through her eyes, the narrator expresses what might be Walsh’s inner feelings. “She seemed absorbed in making some sort of estimate of the land which she had heard so much.” It is not coincidental that Durrell chose her to carry Walsh’s first impressions of the country he was supposed to view as his homeland but which he later learnt to hate. Within him, in the figure of an ayah whom he loved so much, are contained his innermost feelings. It is as if the ayah of his childhood, who raised him and introduced him to the land of his birth, was contained within as an object. D.W. Winnicott (1896-1971), the renowned British paediatrician and psychoanalyst, would perhaps refer to the role the ayah served in Durrell’s inner constitution as a transitional object, helping him to bridge between the inner and outer realities he had found himself having to straddle. Back on the deck, Walsh turns to her and says “shyly: ‘I, too, am from the hills. Kurseong.’ She nodded quietly, but did not answer. He wondered rather bitterly why she had not shown any sign of gladness at the news. He would have liked to talk to her about the places that already seemed remote, but she seemed to regard him as yet another of the alien race with whom she had nothing in common save the coincidence of a common dwelling; a birth-place and a country for her, for him no more than a temporary house. He bit his lip and tried to feel really glad that he was within sight of such an exciting place as England, but the mood was unreal.”
Why was Durrell unable to write directly about his experience of leaving home, an experience which he later on claimed many times marked home for a life of exile and solitude? Why did he have to make use of a double in the form of the ayah to express himself? Is it not another expression of an unreal mood, the uncanny?
I would like to offer a tentative psychoanalytic thought on this matter. As many scholars and Durrell himself wrote, the experience of leaving home was traumatic for him. It shaped his view on the world and continued both to haunt him and supply him with inspiration. It had made him the man he was. Then why did he not write upon it directly in this very autobiographical novel? One could argue that he did write upon in a symbolic sense but that leaves room to wonder as to such a choice.
The definition of trauma is a huge subject. Most scholars would agree that trauma is an external or internal event that happens to the individual and catches him unprepared and therefore unable to mediate and process it through his symbolic and linguistic capacities. The traumatic event breaks down psychic barriers, bypassing language and defence mechanisms and hits the individual deep within his being, evoking deep anxieties. Not all traumatic events are so devastating. Often, the mind is able to protect itself from potential damage by using a variety of defence mechanisms.
Traumatic events are most likely to be catastrophic in their impact when they happen to babies and young children who are still forming their grasp upon linguistic abilities and therefore unable to use rationality and ego functions to protect themselves from sharp and unexpected bursts of reality bites upon them. but it can and does of course also happen to adolescents and adults. As Baumer in Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front says: “And this I know: all these things that now, while we are still in the war, sink down in us like a stone, after the war shall waken again, and then shall begin the disentanglement of life and death.”
Psychoanalytically, for trauma to be what is, it has to overwhelm existing defences against normal anxiety in a way and volume that also provides confirmation of those deepest universal anxieties. The occurrence of the traumatic event confirms the worst that we have feared and defended from.
Leaving home at the age of nine, when he was first sent to the Jesuit school in India, can indeed be painful but does not necessarily cause trauma. By that age, the child is already able to express himself and act in ways which will prevent the harmful consequences described before. The same goes for the experience of being sent away to England at the age of eleven even though there the stakes were higher. Not only was he sent away from his home, he was sent away from his homeland to another continent with unclear prospects of a reunion with his beloved family with whom he had such close contacts.
Psychoanalytically speaking, for trauma to occur, that is for any external event to trigger a psychic breakdown at a later age, there had to have been a fissure in the soul which was caused in the early childhood. A fissure that would be opened up and aggravated by the event of leaving home at the age of eleven, for instance.
Durrell first left home when he was nine and then for good when he was eleven. That means in effect that he spent his puberty and adolescence years away from home, away from daily contact with his parents.
From a psychoanalytic point of view, adolescence and all the biological, cognitive and emotional process inherent in that period, are crucial when considering the well-being of the individual, his future achievements and the relationships he is able to form in adulthood. Many theoreticians, including Freud and Peter Bloss, consider it, amongst other things, to be the stage at which two crucial developments take place. The first is the second stage of separation-individuation (the first one approximately occurring up to at the age of five) and the second is the final resolution of the Oedipal complex. Both processes necessitate the presence of both parents and the growing child. Naturally, many teenagers go through such processes while being away from home for a wide variety of reason, depending amongst other things on cultural issues. It is of course possible to mature successfully enough even when parents and child are not still living together at home during that period.
But, I would like to offer for consideration that the fact that Durrell underwent his adolescence without either of his parents present, had a role to play in the relative silencing of the effect that leaving home had upon him and later consequences which showed up in his admiration for certain father figures on the one hand (Henry Miller for one) and his questionable relation to women (his wives and second daughter for instance), on the other hand. When writing Pied Piper, Durrell was still too young and yet to become the accomplished writer he would be later on, when he would become perhaps better skilled in dealing with those childhood events.
Returning to trauma: as I mentioned earlier, trauma will be caused if the external events pierce through the defence mechanisms of the individual to meet up with deeply buried unconscious existential anxieties. But it is not enough, in my opinion. What will make a tough event traumatic is also the absence of a witness to the event. It is not that the individual just lacks words with which he can deal with the hardship encountered. What he will mostly lack and what will mostly damage him in a traumatic way, will be the absence of somebody with whom he can relate what had happened to him. This assertion is of course based upon the accumulated clinical experience of many years and many mental health professionals which has been documented widely and theorised upon by, for example, Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub in their seminal book, Testimony.
In a recent study, psycho-sociologist Stephen Frosh makes a distinction between three terms: memory, post-memory and post-memorial work. For past potentially traumatic experiences to emerge from the abyss of the unconscious, they need to travel along the route outlined by these terms. And most importantly, there needs to be someone who can listen and witness those experiences. Otherwise, they are doomed to remain unconscious and subjected to the psychic mechanism of repetition compulsion.
In brief, it is my suggestion that the lack of any elaboration of the leaving home experience in this autobiographical novel, the actual moments, days and weeks that departing from his beloved family and surroundings entailed, an environment he so lovingly and with great poetic detail described, can be related to the absence of a witness, that someone who would have listened to the pain of the eleven-years-old boy. It is not a problem of memory. As testified in the opening pages of Pied Piper, where he writes: “He would be amazed by the terrible lucidity of his memories.” It is a problem of not having someone there to contain and thus elaborate upon those experiences which would become so central to his later works. Durrell wrote that novel, as a young man, trying to make sense of what was gripping him. At that stage of his life, he still lacked many of the more mature resources and insights that were to fill and enrich his later fictional work, such as The Alexandria Quartet, where he was able to elaborate and deepen his understanding of his existential circumstances. In that sense, it was not only a concrete witness that he lacked at this stage, but the internal and symbolic witness that would have helped him to process those still fresh experiences. The past was still too near to be able to write upon with the necessary perspective.
It can be argued that he lacked that perspective not just because of a natural developmental point of view. One of the key elements that helps the individual to mature and differentiate himself from his childhood figures, is the period of rebellion so characteristic of adolescence. Young Durrell did not have his parents physically near in order to be able to rebel against them after he was sent away to England. The rebellion took the shape of an internal struggle and a tendency to view himself as his worst enemy, a tendency elaborated upon both in his later life and in his writing. It can be argued that his relationships with the women in his life showed an immature trait that can be attributed to a personality not yet fully able to deal with the complexity of sharing one’s intimacy with another human being. Durrell divorced three of his four wives. Not having gone through an adolescence whereby he was able both to test the boundaries of his relationships with significant others and yet rely upon a safe base that would contain his overflowing teenage energies, he remained to an extent an immature individual, saved only by his creativity.
This contributed significantly to his sense of loneliness and solitude in later years, eventually leading to the formation of the heraldic universe in his mind. Already in this novel he wrote what would later be developed more fully in The Alexandria Quartet: “As far as I can make out, Society is all wrong, but I can’t stop the thing from working […] Everything seems fatuous, and the retort, Everything is, you included […] Was there really anything in this mass of ill-expressed writing worth sacrificing the code of the average man for? […] All philosophy seems to lead me towards a perfect spiritual detachment - a divorce from the world, and therefore towards sterility and deadness. Let me be content to say: I am, and content to be as fully as possible.” The roots of his existential position that he is alone in a world of his own, where his life derives meaning only from creativity, where he is the sole inhabitant of his world, are found in this first novel. In the final pages of the novel, he writes: “There it is, then. I am unhappy. I am happy […] I am a cheerful nihilist […] I believe in nothing […] No duties, no obligations […] Nor – well – nor nothing […] My sensibility is the only laboratory in which work is carried out that interests me at all […] I am. I will not be. The doctrine of a perfect selfishness.”
It is the loss of having a witness to his innermost experience as a child that Durrell wrote about throughout his life. In an attempt to re-evoke the sense of significance in his life, a significance he had lost through an untimely and not so well managed separation from his family and birthplace, Durrell created a universe to himself, where he reigned creatively, beautifully but ever so lonely.
Pied Piper of Lovers, as well as his later works, uniquely conveys Durrell’s aim of showing that his reflective process is designed for the purpose of making sense of life. Durrell wrote because without writing he felt alienation and failed to make sense of his life. Writing served as his vital channel for expression. Writing represented for him the home he had aspired to return to throughout his life.
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