Beginning with their first meeting over lunch at Lawrence Durrell’s Provencal home, Durrell and Jolan Chang—renowned Taoist philosopher and expert on Eastern sexuality—developed an enduring relationship based on mutual spiritual exploration. Durrell’s autobiographical rumination on their friendship and on Taoism recounts the author’s existential ponderings, starting with his introduction to the mystical and enigmatic “smile in the mind’s eye.” From parsimony, cooking, and yoga to poetry, Petrarch, and Nietzche, A Smile in the Mind’s Eye is a charming tale of a writer’s spiritual and philosophical awakening.
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About the Author
Born in Jalandhar, British India, in 1912 to Indian-born British colonials, Lawrence Durrell was a critically hailed and beloved novelist, poet, humorist, and travel writer best known for the Alexandria Quartet novels, which were ranked by the Modern Library as among the greatest works of English literature in the twentieth century. A passionate and dedicated writer from an early age, Durrell’s prolific career also included the groundbreaking Avignon Quintet, whose first novel, Monsieur (1974), won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and whose third novel, Constance (1982), was nominated for the Booker Prize. He also penned the celebrated travel memoir Bitter Lemons of Cyprus (1957), which won the Duff Cooper Prize. Durrell corresponded with author Henry Miller for forty-five years, and Miller influenced much of his early work, including a provocative and controversial novel, The Black Book (1938). Durrell died in France in 1990.
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A Smile in the Mind's Eye
By Lawrence Durrell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1980 Lawrence Durrell
All rights reserved.
I have been meaning to write a short account of my meeting with Jolan Chang, a Chinese scholar and – as he would have it – gerontologist, for some considerable time, though it has not been easy to assemble all the impressions he left behind him after his first short visit to my Provençal home. The word Taoism, for example, has always had a dramatic appeal for me, though apart from the great poem associated with it, its Bible, so to speak, I know but little of the Taoists and their beliefs. But ever since I fell upon that beautiful and concise work, the Tao Te Ching, which contains an enigmatic description of the great motor of the universe and its workings, I felt somehow that that is what I myself believed in – or would believe in for choice if one day I found that belief were absolutely necessary to me.
But here I should hesitate for a moment – for what do I mean by 'belief'? The word is not to be airily tossed away in this cavalier fashion, without some attempt to come to intellectual grips with it. In my own case I find that with every kind of belief one must exercise a certain caution – for it hardens into dogma if it becomes absolute rather than provisional. The word Tao, on the other hand, suggests to me different stances (all truth being relative) – a state of total disponibilité, total availability, a total and comprehensive wholehearted awareness of that instant where certainty breaks surface like a hooked fish. Only at this point is the spirit fully tuned in to the great metaphor of the world as TAO. Reality is then prime, independent of the hampering conceptual apparatus of conscious thought. It is the flashpoint where the mind joins itself to the nature of all created things. That poetry is Tao.
When did I first begin to harbour such ideas? It is long ago now – it must have been during my twenty-third year, perhaps in the island of Corfu. I cannot recall the circumstances at all clearly. I felt then that in this book I had stumbled upon a Chinese Heraclitus, and that despite the apparent enigmas with which the poem deals, the whole thing made immediate sense to me – somewhat transcendental sense, to be sure, but absolute sense. I found it to be a creation in the same key as that of the early Greek philosophers I was then discovering. And so, diving for cherries we had thrown on the sand sea-floor of the little shrine to St Arsenius, I repeated to myself fragments of the two texts as if they had been by the same man. Of course I see now that they were – though Heraclitus's text is more fragmented than that of the Chinese sage ... But quite apart from all this I had never in my life met any individual Chinese to talk to – and certainly never any scholar who could promise at once to explain and discuss Taoism as a living belief – which is what Chang did when he first telephoned me in his excellent and graphic English. There was nothing in it, he added mischievously – a Taoist joke! It came about like this. For some weeks in 1976 I had been receiving letters from this unknown Chinese scholar couched in very good English from the city of Stockholm where he appeared to reside. The Taoistgerontologist nexus became slowly clear to me when I remembered that the Taoists were absolutely obsessed by the question of immortality in this life – not in an afterworld; and their whole practice was devoted to trying to achieve this desirable state in this life, before striking out for the nirvana of the orthodox Buddhists – though of course Taoism is part of Mahayana Buddhism. But my scholar was rather a puzzle at first. He wrote in a small neat hand on several different sorts of headed paper obviously pinched from yacht clubs and hotels. I shared this magpie habit myself and perfectly understood. But he covered the whole surface of the paper with his fine script. He said that he wished to consult me about a work of scholarship he had completed, and which was already being set up for publication – and the reason he gave was that he had seen somewhere an interview in which I expressed my sympathy for Taoism.
I was of course flattered and startled, and hastened to disclaim any special knowledge of the subject. No matter, he insisted, and went on to ask if he might visit me in Provence. And no sooner had I agreed than I found him at the other end of a telephone calling me from Stockholm and proposing to reach my little local station of Lunel by dawn on the following day. It was very swift thinking and I was puzzled at the speed of the decision and the expertise over the timetables – but I was to find Jolan Chang was a sort of walking abacus, and that his travelling was based most strictly upon the principles of Chuang Tzu (in whose text the traveller always passes invisibly, raising no dust by his silent passage). I did not regard this admonition very literally until I met Chang and realized that if one did not live with total economy in every field one was literally prejudicing one's immortality. I thought he was simply a little miserly at first, until I twigged the immortality principle behind his tremendous frugality! In the Taoist principle there should be nothing left over when you die and 'go into the round' – not a crumb, not an undrawn breath. Taoism engenders a clean sweep. Everything must be refunded into the happy silence of the Tao!
Rising early has never been a problem; at five-thirty I lit up the dark garden and warmed the motor of the car. The owls which inhabit the old tower by the pool came whistling and skirmishing down into the lighted foliage, friendly as gun-dogs. Indeed, so often the younger ones overshoot and crash into the coloured panes of the lighted verandah, as the children used to call it. Dawn was not far off, there was a faint suspicion of darkness lifting in the east, beyond the bony garrigues. My little local station is quite close – about a dozen kilometres only. I have always revelled in this solitary drive to meet the early train along roads almost deserted save for the occasional lorry. The gloomy little station would be still asleep when I got there – the guard and the ticket-collector always appear like jack-in-the-boxes from nowhere, just a few moments before the bell tingles to announce the arrival of the Paris express. I was curious about Chang – what sort of man had I come to meet? I pictured someone extremely fragile and venerable and old ...
The Paris 'Rapide' was punctual as always; she slid into the station pulling the long black new-look coaches. There was a Chinese youth standing at the open door of a carriage waiting for the speed to slacken. As he stepped down the ladder I took him to be eighteen, so supple and light were his movements. He smiled and waved – I was the only person on the platform – and then leaped to the quai as light as a cat. Yes, it was Chang all right! It was a little while before I found out that this slim Chinese youth was around sixty years of age!
His only baggage appeared to be a couple of Air France zip-bags such as one buys in airports. He wore a light overcoat, a heavy pullover and a ski bonnet. He had sat up all night – or rather had slept sitting – to save expense and also to do a little work. The text he had brought with him looked a somewhat bulky one. But he was as fresh as a daisy, and seemed to revel in the landscapes we were soon crossing, warmed as they were by the light of the rising sun. It was a choice dawn, the countryside was fresh after a light dew, and the promise of a warm day put us both in a good humour. In the case of Chang it was also his first visit to Provence and his eager darting eye flashed about like a dragon-fly, taking everything in with an effortless zeal which made me feel that he was busy repainting it all in water-colour – transforming it in his mind into a Chinese version of Provence.
The roads were just waking up by the time we reached the village and my guest expressed his admiration for it. It is, I suppose, the most beautiful in the Languedoc, with its girdle of medieval walls and ravelins and its tumpy Roman bridge across the green Vidourle – a river which often leaps out of its bed and floods the town for an hour or two before sliding away down towards Lunel and the sea. My abandoned garden with its tall trees and hidden pool also met with his approval. Chang seemed to take in everything with a sort of panoramic vision, like a praying mantis. He gave quick little nods, as if of recognition. He did not speak any French.
My solid and sometimes rather brusque part-time maid was startled – she was already at work on the washing-up – when I walked into the kitchen with a Chinaman. He greeted her in English and then sat down quietly at the kitchen table to wait for breakfast. But here was a brief check – for he had brought his own with him, and seemed rather afraid to be subjected to anything heavier than fruit. He spoke with some diffidence, yet he had an air of great distinction about him. In fact he had the magnificent looks of a tiny Emperor as he sat at the kitchen table with a kind of regal passivity, almost a helplessness like that of hieratic personages of rank whose every gesture is studied. It was an illusion of course. He was extremely small-boned and fine in physique – he had, I discovered, pared himself down relentlessly by the diet he followed. His air of courteous authority came perhaps from the fact that he didn't fidget, he simply and happily sat, as sometimes a child will. We proposed several sorts of breakfast to him but he found the suggestions superfluous. From his little zip-bag he produced an orange and a small silver pocket knife. He crossed to the sink with the deftness of a cheetah and washed the fruit thoroughly before cutting it into quarters which he then ate slowly and with circumspection, rind and all. Meanwhile I had come to my senses and produced honey and milk and bread, and other fruit – a sort of yogi breakfast which met with his approval. He was to stay with me for a long weekend, this had been agreed; I hoped that there would be enough time, not only for the textual work, but also to enable me to show him a little of the Languedoc. For a while we sat in quiet affability, watching the maid get through her routine – she only spares me an hour a day, which is just enough to maintain the balance of things in the bat-haunted old Provençal house I inhabit, more often than not alone.
Soon she went, and it was the beginning of a marvellous long weekend – momentous for me, for it combined all sorts of choice information, a fascinating text, Chinese cooking, and – this somewhat to my surprise – a great deal of laughter. He rode life with a very light rein, my Taoist friend. Moreover it was a delightful thing – all men feel this – to spend some time locked up with a member of your own sex; in the Alps, say, or under snow, or on a windy Greek island. Here in Sommières we could make fires, experiment with cooking, quarrel, play cards, read and talk about women; nor do I think this sort of appreciation is exclusively male – women also enjoy it, the freedom from the partiality of the opposite sex. My wife used to spend a fortnight a year in a chalet in the Alps with three girlfriends, freed from the boredom of crimping male company – free to ski, quarrel, cook, read, play cards, and ... talk about men. It is absolutely logical. So that when the maid took herself off – and she does not come on weekends – I rejoiced to find myself mewed up with a new friend who would soon turn out, I hoped, to be a storehouse of exotic knowledge, and the verifier of many an intuition I had once had in reading Chinese classics, though unfortunately always in translation.
Well, while the maid finished up, Chang elected to have a hot bath and spruce himself up after the fatigue of the long journey; I also felt that after a considered and circumspect period of smelling out his new surroundings like an animal, he had suddenly relaxed and felt himself at home. 'If you are going to cook for me, as you promised,' I said, 'it will have to be this evening because the maid, without waiting for orders, has made us a lunch – and escalope and a glass of wine and some rice.' He rather demurred at the mention of meat but at once added, 'I am not a fanatic, you know. Just to prove it I will have a tiny piece, and even a sip of wine.' It was a splendid bit of good manners, and while he joked about cholesterol and grease I realized that he was serious.
But how he carried all that he did in his two little satchels was a puzzle because, apart from his food (three apples, a carton of milk, some honey, nuts, and several packs of assorted vitamins) he also had a change of trousers and another pullover, as well as a dressing-gown and other sundries. I began to see him in the light of a Chinese conjuror perhaps, simply making things vanish into the little bags. He spent a long time enjoying the water and cleaning up his clothes, brushing them scrupulously and removing stains with a damp cloth. But though he proclaimed himself much restored by the bath I could see little trace of a change – he had shown no fatigue in the first place. 'The sun is shining,' he said. 'How about a walk?'
It was a good idea. He wanted to see the little medieval town and to get the feeling of his whereabouts – he was excited to be in Provence for a while. He smelt the vivacity in the French air, he said, looking about him like a precious insect.
What was more engaging still was that there was the usual Saturday market-day display laid out, bright as a bed of flowers, in the arcaded Place du Marché. This was a piece of local colour which had my friends in raptures – indeed with the vivid awnings of the forains and the banks of brilliant vegetables and fruit on the stalls the sight is delightful in all its sunny variety. And vegetables! Chang practically did a two-step with joy as we loitered down the great stone staircase into the little square, going slowly in order to take in the beauty of the scene. He would, he said, shop there and then for the evening; and as good as his word, he began a microscopic investigation of the vegetables on display, with the single-mindedness of a bird of prey – a keen shopper's attitude which won the instant admiration of all the village vendors for whose benefit I translated his questions. Furthermore his purchases when he made them were of a most modest kind – I did not see how two fully grown men could exist on this meagre handful of stuff which he loaded with care and love into a string bag. I said as much but he only smiled; and indeed when the time came I was astonished to find that living his way there always seemed more than enough to eat of the delicious light fare. But when he took over the entire cuisine, allocating to me simply the task of cutter-up, we ate about five times a day – ate when we felt like it. Each meal was different, each a sort of hot snack.
* * *
So we returned triumphantly to the house to despatch our French lunch and to make preparations for the cooking of the evening meal. Chang looked over my display of knives and found them wanting. Indeed, some of them would not cut at all, and then, where, he asked, was there a suitable cutting-board? At last I found him a slice of olive-wood which he thought might do and the best of the knives, and he fell to work to clean and pare his vegetables exercising the utmost economy, using every scrap of leaf and rind. I realized then that, as he said, anything and everything is eatable if cut up in sufficiently tiny quantities. He gave me part of his loot and showed me how to operate on it, talking the while rather gravely about how Chinese cooking takes the simplest way round things. Even the teeth are spared hard use because the food is so finely chopped, while compared to all the western kitchen lumber that we use – knives, forks, and so on – the Chinaman has only two expendable sticks for his chop and one small bowl. One knife that is sharp and a cutting-board are all that is really necessary. I guiltily swore to have all my knives resharpened at the earliest opportunity. This deft and youthful Chinese presence brought a touch of exoticism to the kitchen, and I promised myself a few days full of discussion and self-cultivation – as the Taoists would have it!
Excerpted from A Smile in the Mind's Eye by Lawrence Durrell. Copyright © 1980 Lawrence Durrell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
- A Smile in the Mind’s Eye
- A Biography of Lawrence Durrell