Denis de Rougemont and books that change your life

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Denis de Rougemont

There are only one or two books that change your life. Milan Kundera says somewhere that his discovery of Rabelais made him realise what could be done with the modern novel. He also adores Don Quixote, the first great ironic modern novel of the West, and that novel deals hilariously with the topic at the heart of French historian Denis de Rougemont’s huge work, L’Amour et L’Occident, published in 1939 and translated into English as Passion and Society.

passion and society

I was prompted to read it as a 17-year-old schoolboy by my history teacher, Denis Collinson. He was preparing me for interviews at Oxford and he asked me what I would say if one of the tutors asked what I was currently reading. “I’m reading The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B,” I said, full of confidence. “Oh God,” Denis said, “Don’t tell them that. Everyone reads JP Donleavy. You need to be much more original than that.” And the next day he brought in a copy of Passion and Society. “Read that,” he said.

So I read it. It is a philosophical history setting out a much-disputed contention that the Western notion of passionate love derives from the heretical works of the southern European troubadors of the Cathar period. De Rougemont suggests that their opposition to the mainstream Catholic orthodoxy was expressed through the idea of romantic love: the doomed longing for the perfect yet unattainable other which ever since became the mainstay of Western popular romance (and which Cervantes ridiculed so effectively).

De Rougemont was a Christian philosopher and his objective in setting out his thesis was to demonstrate the danger of adherence to the myth. Halfway through the book, once he has delineated the key elements of the main myth, that of Tristan and Isolde, he thunders on the destructive nature of passionate love, how it essentially expresses a longing for death and how it threatens the stability of all human life.

When I reported back to my history teacher, I told him I was absolutely transfixed by the notion that passionate love could be considered as an idea that didn’t necessarily depend on the real existence of another person. “I didn’t expect you to take that from it,” he said, somewhat disingenuously. “I just thought you’d find his description of the early French heretics interesting and you could talk about it in your interview.”

Too late. I don’t think I’ve ever quite got over reading it. And now, reading for the first time the extraordinarily wonderful¬†Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, which amongst many things is a dissertation on the idea of passionate love, I am reminded once again of how de Rougemont’s book effectively let slip the rope that held me to the land.

Karaghiosis: Durrell’s Corfu evening at the shadow-play

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Still slightly fixated on Lawrence Durrell and Corfu. In Chapter 4 of Prospero’s Cell, he gives an absolutely wonderful description of an evening in Corfu watching the shadow-play performance by an itinerant group of players of one of the many tales of the Greek folklore hero Karaghiosis.

Durrell can be, even his most fervent admirers must accept, a slightly cold fish sometimes when it comes to his depiction of his Greek neighbours on the island of Corfu. The younger brother whom he protected so well, Gerald of My Family And Other Animals, betrayed a curiously similar distance to the bugs and reptiles he loved so much: oh look, how they wriggle! One longs sometimes for them both to be stripped of the protagonist’s armour.

But on the occasion of the shadow-play “in a little sunken garden by the Italian school”, Durrell seems to be so transfixed by the drama – both on the stage and in the audience amongst him – that he appears to forget himself and allows the power of the art presented to him and his neighbours seated beside him to hold sway.

The shadow-play tells a comic story of how the imbecile Hadjiavatis (“He is to Karaghiosis what Watson is to Sherlock Holmes – his butt and feed at the same time”) is encouraged by Karaghiosis to spend his last two drachma on a scheme to sell wine in order to make sufficient profit to buy votes at the forthcoming election: “It is simple, says Karahhiosis. We will buy a bottle of wine for one drachma. We will sell it to the public at a drachma a glass. In that way we shall make a considerable profit. With our profit we will buy more bottles of wine and sell them at a drachma a glass. In this way we shall become extremely rich and bribe enough voters to launch a party.” Inevitably, the pair end up drinking the wine themselves.

The passage needs to be read for its brilliant immediacy, but here’s Durrell’s conclusion: “On this little dazzling screen you have the whole laic mystery of Greece which has been so long dormant in the mountains and islands – in the groves and valleys of the archipelago. You have the spirit and the unconquerable adaptability of the Greek who has penetrated with the leaven of his mercuric irony and humour into every quarter of the globe.”

Note to self: next visit to Greece, seek out a shadow-play. Meanwhile, here’s the great Karaghiosis with his legendary phallic arm in action:

Durrell’s Corfu

White House Durrell

“The little bay lies in a trance, drugged with its own extraordinary perfection – a conspiracy of light, air, blue sea and cypresses.”

This beautiful phrase from Lawrence Durrell wasn’t actually about the bay where he and his family had a house in Corfu before the outbreak of the Second World War; rather, he was speaking of nearby¬†Paleokastritsa but he could just have been talking of the bay at Kalami where the family lived their curious life together:

The Durrells in Corfu

The Durrells left Corfu in 1939, never to return, and Lawrence famously regretted his own writing about it, thinking that he had encouraged the mass tourism which he abhorred. Yet on a recent visit, the beauty of those bays in both Corfu and neighbouring Paxos remain intact, seeming quite able to absorb the bobbing white charter yachts and the ferries filled with selfie-sticked visitors. There is an uncomfortable snobbishness inherent in the denigration of tourism – it’s OK for me to visit, but not you. The Greek islands seem still to offer a lesson in kind welcoming.

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