This summer holiday I have had a book in my knapsack, a book I read a great many years since now, a book which I for various reasons did not think I would read again: Monsieur or the Prince of Darkness, by the English author Lawrence Durrell.
In the novel whose kernel is the suspected suicide of Piers de Nogaret, the assembly of disassociated and enstranged old friends and associates, and a massive recollection, in no less than four of his former aquiantances – we encounter a certain gentleman by the name of Akkad. Akkad is Durrell’s “wise old man” archetypal figure, only his persona and vocabulary is slightly sinister, and he is apparently younger than the protagonists.
About Gnostics such as himself, Akkad said:
“People of our persuasion gradually learn to refuse all rights to so-called God. They renounce the empty world, not like ascetics or martyrs, but like convalescents after suicide.”(pp13)
This is the fare that Akkad gives us, his universe, while host to many most beautiful forms, reminders – still is unpopulated by any other spark of light or presence but the cold calculating stare of human consciousness, the only way to deal with it is to recognize all that keeps one bound to a condition of slavery, and in fear of Death and God, the authorities par excellence in this world.
“What really dies is the collective image of the past – all the temporal selves which have been present in a serial form focused together now in an instant of perfect attention, of crystal-clear apprehension which could last forever if one wished.”(pp14)
“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.”(pp23-24)
A few words on Lawrence Durrell, while sometimes his format verges upon traditional mystery novels they never really make the transition, he is a thoroughly modern (or “modernist”) author who are, as is wont to care more about a consistency to interior psyche than conventions of narrative and continuity. I do not feel I exaggerate if I say Durrell’s novels is even literarily challenging, in the sense that it is difficult to follow, to grasp in the sense we would indeed do so with the popular mystery novels, for example.
That marred my reading experience with regards to Monsieur because the author has allowed a great ambiguity with regards to the narrative first person of his novel, eventually even the format of the novel is dissolved, not only in longer excerpts from journals and letters, but poetry and long stream-of-consciousness passages without discernable beginning and end. To many critics, these things are not only interesting, but so endearing as to be some kind of stamp of eloquence and genius – to others, the author has performed, by them, a mortal sin against the conventions of literature pure and proper.
Durrell’s literary universe is populated by feverish,haunted lovers who have long since lost touch with the contemporary standard of propriety. They are somehow tainted, even the protagonists, they have no heroic strain left in them, they have succumbed to emptyness, to emotional chaos – to decadence. The backdrop of colonial Alexandria and deprecit Avignon in the decades between the world wars, serve up a mystique of its own, but Durrell’s characters have minds which filters out the exterior world, outside their rivalries, romances, friendships and antipathies. In Monsieur, Durrell lets us in on a secret thrust between old friends and lovers – at one time they all went to Macabru to meet the illustrious 20th century Gnostic Akkad, a man of mixed Syrian and French heritage who had decamped into some alternative civilization, allowed to do so from living on his inheritance from wealthy, but decadent ancestors – and from his strange combination of business partners and spiritual disciples.
At one time Akkad allows his most recent convert to his “Ophite Gnostic” group to discover an article which unveils his group and his person as nothing but charlatans, dangerous as such – planting the magazine with the barber he knows Piers Lagouret would visit.
Bruce Drexel, the protagonist of Durrell’s novel, trying to digest the abrupt death of his friend Piers, the heir of the infamous
traitor of the French Templars- who supposedly had given them away to the ambitious King of France, Philip le Bel, as a form of revenge for the death of his forefathers who had been Cathars –
“I wondered if in dying he (Piers) remembered the initiation which we had shared in Egypt long ago – at the hands of Akkad, distilled patiently from the doctrines of the desert gnostics? I know he had been deeply marked by them. In the matter of death, I mean, they were crucial and unequivocal. For after that initiation it was impossible to attach any profound importance to the notion of dying. All individual deaths had been resumed by the death of God! I remember how the idea terrified me at the time! When we said goodbye to tender, smiling Akkad he told us:”Now don’t give a thought to what you have learned. Simply become it as fast as you can – for what one becomes one forgets.” Obviously this belonged to the other kind of death, the gnostic one which would henceforward always overshadow the death of mere time in man; the death which for Akkad and his sect was simply one form of the body’s self-indulgence, a lack of fastidiousness.”Dying can be a mere caprice if one allows it to happen before discovering the big trick which enables one to die with profit”, he said.”
My own journey upon the Gnostic path has indeed been much informed about death, more than perhaps what is considered proper by some. The conclusion of this introspection is for me the understanding that I need to embrace the responsibility which I have, on account of the new relationship I have, not with an abstract, not with an authority, not a bloodless prinsciple – but a God alive and spiritual; but it is not only God who formerly were a precarious ghost haunting the subconscious psychic strata in me and my fellow Gnostics, it is the Persona itself, dispossessed of its own, exiled from the “Temple” as it were, wherein it is possible to give thought to, or choose any action with regards to any reality; the world has hijacked us from the day of our birth into this world.
James Gifford and Stephen Osadetz has published an article in the online Journal Agora titled Gnosticism in Lawrence Durrell’s Monsieur: New Textual Evidence for Source Materials . They point out quite a few problems with determining both Durrell’s access to information on classical Gnosticism, method of using sources and relationship to Jacques Lacarriere, who wrote a rather popular book on the Gnostics in the 70’s, named fittingly “The Gnostics”, to which Lawrence Durrell wrote the foreword, he considered the book “more a work of literature than of scholarship” and had some reservations about his colleagues’ theories. Anyways, they did a better job than I could hope to do with regards to this severly limited area. But I do have some remarks myself with regards to Durrell’s “contemporary” Gnostics who according to the plot in his books encamped in the oasis named Macabru annually to go through an initiatory process – Akkad appears as a kind of Max Theon-character who spins an incredible amount of mystique around his own person and the way by which he has received some kind of revelatory license to be a purveyor of Gnosis in the 20th century. His calculated cynicism and “method”, however, looks stamped decidedly with Gurdijeff’s characteristics. To a limited amount of British people both Max Theon and G.I.Gurdijeff played a significant role in their awakening to a kind of spiritualized intellectualism, alternatively intellectual spirituality. Another aspect to Akkad’s personality is his rather sincere and naked nihilism, especially with regards to questions such as Suicide, human sexuality and society; whatever angle I look at it, from having been “socialized” into understanding my visions and interior dialogues in light of classical Gnosticism through first-hand sources, to wit, the Nag Hammadi Library – the ethos of the Egyptian Gnostics has a different, yet as radical, view of these matters. Suicide is not an eleutherian catalyst for salvation at all, it is not even considered a voluntary action but a conditioned response to the incalculatable low odds for an awakened, conscious Self within the dissolving chaos which nevertheless is all this Universe elicits as a description, at least not from “us”.
This is also the observation of J.Gifford and S.Osadetz in their article, they compare Durrell’s gnostic Akkad’s view on suicide with that of the gnostics described in Lacarriere’s book on them:
As Akkad explains to Sylvie, Piers and Bruce during their initiation into the heresy, “But then death… What is it after all? It is not enough! We will all die. Yet to the pure Gnostic soul the open gesture of refusal is necessary, is the only poetic act” (Durrell, Monsieur 139). Nevertheless, this tenet of Akkad’s Gnosticism, that certain forms of suicide are acceptable, is anything but the belief of a “pure gnostic soul” as Lacarrière describes it; rather, Lacarrière writes, suicide
“is the absolute antithesis of the Gnostic attitude. Not one of them, at any time, preached suicide. The aim of the Gnostic is not the conjugate extinction of life and of consciousness, but the mastering of the one and the other, the attainment of a hyper-life and a hyper-consciousness.” (Lacarriere:The Gnostics)