California Literary Review

Stemming from … Nowhere?


March 26th, 2007 at 12:48 am

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D.H. Lawrence

Genius is complex. Not all important writers are possessed of it, or possessed by it. It was from the first attributed to David Herbert Lawrence, one of the two greatest English writers of the first third of the 20th Century. Lawrence died at 45 of tuberculosis in 1930, writing till his last hours, which were passed on his sickbed in Vence, overlooking the Mediterranean. From the moment Edward Garnett read and published his first story, “The Odor of Chrysanthemums,” about a coal-mining disaster, that quality was spotted. Lawrence’s career immediately began on a trajectory that may be said to have been marked not only by notoriety but like a skyrocket left many sparks of his genius drifting in its wake. On his passing, he left behind a large, and yes, a great if uneven body of work: whether in fiction, poetry, drama, monographs, travel books, essays, or letters. Although his powers of description of persons, and the living and inanimate world are supreme, as a painter, he proved eccentric and amateur, yet nonetheless interesting if only for his subjects. If, as Saul Bellow remarked in a lecture, the novelist tells us “how it is with us,” Lawrence stands as an example non pareil in book after book up to and including THE RAINBOW and what was broken out of it during WW I to become WOMEN IN LOVE. That extraordinary novel, refused publication during the war in England though printed in the United States, not only gave us the full present of its characters, but is imbued, permeated and characterized by something that developed in Lawrence from 1914 on, what can only be called a strong talent (in the Biblical sense) for prophetic vision. And the first signs of thoughts about “race,” “gender,” and their “master-slave” dynamic, something different from sadism/masochism, implicit in the latter. After 1918, he could no longer be reckoned a Hardyesque or naturalist, or realist novelist, but something new and strange. To be sure, that strain of prophecy and his interest in its bearers, that is, his leading characters, is not new to Literature per se. Lawrence knew his dissenting literary forebears very well, from Langland and Bunyan on, and his prose is a tapestry interwoven not only with cadences from the King James Bible but with his contemporary and easy vernacular. To sum up in a phrase the true and deepest character of Lawrence’s genius, it was given by his close friend Aldous Huxley in an introduction to the first collected letters shortly after his death: he was a mystical materialist. And thereon hangs the tale I shall unfold.

In 1953 I undertook the study of Lawrence which was to be my Ph.D. dissertation. Granted in 1955, it was the second such work done in the United States, the first having been devoted to the bibliographical, or catalogue raisonée of his oeuvre. He was practically out of print after 25 years, except for the banned LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER, and the early novel, SONS AND LOVERS. The reasons for that are, like his genius, complex. The 1930′s were a decade of rising totalitarian States, who commenced their attempt to conquer both hemispheres by the 1940s, as well as a period of world-wide Depression in which the arts were largely occulted by mass movements and minds preoccupied by politics. Lawrence himself was from 1919 on someone deeply concerned with the fate of the individual in the European societies wrecked utterly by the Great War. And above all, he was prescient.

Traveling and reporting on the Continent from then on, having forsaken England, he saw at first hand and described the rise of Fascism in Italy from the early riots in Milan and Turin. He had known Italy well from long before the War, and found himself revolted by the strutting, capering, bullying of the black shirts, and yet he was fascinated by what he sensed was the need for “leadership” after the demolition of authority in the post-war years. AARON’S ROD was a tentative step into that morass, illustrated by the notion of subjection of the weak male character to a stronger, creative one, a metaphor with many ways of being exemplified. His other novel of that time was THE LOST GIRL, and its metaphor is that of the seeking female, the woman cutting herself loose from a fossilized society of oppression and wandering abroad to find a partner, or male master, a recurrent theme in Lawrence from the early 1920′s. There was also KANGAROO, an Australian novel, which took up the leadership theme in terms of a union boss upsetting his country, a theme developed from the General Strike that had paralyzed England shortly before he wrote it at top speed. Lawrence there was exploring leadership in terms of mass movements, which were already going to be a feature in Europe, out of which the dictatorships rose. Ironically, the union boss was a Jew; and he is killed, rather martyred, in the final confrontation of warring government/labor factions. All these questions or themes are embodied in his ambitious novel of revolution and dictatorship, THE PLUMED SERPENT, in which Lawrence, long before Hitler, proposed a return to “blood and race roots”: Mexico was to be led to a dictatorship of natives, anti-Catholic and anti-European, a reinstallation of lost “Aztecan” glory as it were, drums and feathers and dancing and all. It was a deadly serious “thought experiment,” in which he dramatized the kitsch Socialism that was to be exemplified in the apocalyptic devastation wrought by the modern primitivism of a Germany he was never to see and the feudal barbarism of a Japan he was never to know, both of which ended in ruins and horror for those societies. And it was to be Lawrence’s last effort to speak of the fate of the individual in any society. Indeed, he wrote a letter to Huxley from Vera Cruz, in which he said he had just sent off the galleys of the book to his publisher, and was even then in 1925 renouncing what he called “The Leadership Principle.” Would that many others had done so at that time! Indeed, Martin Heidegger, one of the leading philosophers of the mid-20th Century, just four years younger than Lawrence, went on writing, even in his last books before his death in 1976, the same basic ideas Lawrence had tried out and dropped fifty years earlier; these were essentially the Lamarckian and racialist hypothesis of “blood and soil,” as if the years of his support of Nazism had never been! Like Lawrence in 1923-25, he asserted that the physical individual’s being, nerves and language and myths and ideas were ineluctably rooted, localized in time and space. As in THE PLUMED SERPENT, they needed to be found, exhumed to the light of the present. Curiously enough, a century earlier Thoreau urged this reaching for the bottom at the end of WALDEN (which Lawrence knew well). And ironically, so far as notions of racial essence go, that is one theme upon which Birkin discoursed somewhat radically in WOMEN IN LOVE in 1917, describing the separate path in evolution taken by the black African; furthermore, in that novel Lawrence excoriated the icy-souled blonde and blue-eyed white European of the north, as contrasted to the warm-hearted, dark-eyed Latin of the Mediterranean. Racial stereotypes were very much a large public question from the 1890s on in Europe, and even an obsession with important Jewish researchers. And it is not a matter in the least settled, since recent findings suggest strongly that the DNA molecule seems to be able to adapt and change its structure under local influences, which raises the possibility of a neo-Lamarckian hypothesis open to the testing of theoretical laboratory research.

Lawrence was however not done with what I call “thought experiments,” ventures in fiction he had once termed “shedding” his illnesses. His last novel was originally meant to be titled TENDERNESS, but became in the end LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER. It took up themes previously treated by Lawrence: industrialization, the ruined, War generation, as illustrated by the hemiplegic Clifford Chatterley, and the would-be ascetic veteran Mellors, his gamekeeper, whose psyche had as it were been paralyzed in the trenches. Lawrence was trying out an idea of “rebirth” through the only relationship possible in this desolated civilization, the body’s connection to another in the mutuality of sexual … tenderness. Readers will recall that, as in several earlier novels, beginning with WOMEN IN LOVE, there is no conclusion, no resolution or “ending,” simply a suspension in anticipation of an oncoming unknown, perhaps unknowable, future: Connie Chatterley is pregnant, and the pair are readying to emigrate in hopes of a new life in Canada. His novella, THE MAN WHO DIED, his last prose work before his death (his APOCALYPSE is posthumous), has been called, half-humorously, a Fifth Gospel. Its protagonist is Jesus, never named, who wakes in a tomb and escapes (it was also entitled THE ESCAPED COCK), finds refuge with peasants until he recovers from his wounds; and departs, wandering until he finds a virgin votaress of Isis, daughter of a widow who owns vast estates overlooking the eastern Mediterranean. She takes him into her retreat, a cave by the shore, such as perhaps Elijah hid himself in, in his flight from Jezebel, and there heals him further until they consummate a “marriage,” after which he wanders off into the world, leaving the pregnant girl behind, who will give birth to a child heralding the unknown future of civilization..

In connection with all this, it should be remembered that D.H. Lawrence believed the “religious faculty” to be innate in our species. What was lacking after 1918 was any possible object of worship. The God of the West was no more, because Western civilization was no more. In KANGAROO, the Jew union boss, the Great Kangaroo, is killed off, shot in his belly or pouch, that pouch in which the kangaroo children are nurtured by the mother. Finis. In his “thought experiments,” trying this or that possible society, he proposed various sorts of “gods,” human and inhuman or extra-human, although never supernatural. He was in all his writings profoundly religious; hence the term “mystical” that Huxley used to describe him. As for the “materialist,” the first clues may be located in two essays, rather polemical tracts he composed in the early 1920s: they are PSYCHOANALYSIS AND THE UNCONSCIOUS, and FANTASIA OF THE UNCONSCIOUS, both of which attempted to come to terms with what is, our material existence and the realm of what the religious faculty apprehends. Among several topics arguing the physical/metaphysical positions of the West, he developed a position concerning “human nature,” and one phrase remains suggestive and striking: “the first fused nucleus of the ovum,” from which all else, mainly the attributes of gender, emerges. In this Lawrence, like Freud and Jung before the 1930s, allies himself with the fundamental “reality” of our planet and the universe known at that time. Hence Huxley’s judgment: Lawrence, the mystical materialist.

It ought to be remembered that important poets like Yeats and T.S. Eliot, amongst many other renowned writers, understood the shock of 1914-1918 and its aftermath, the 1920s, as a catastrophe that marked the end of the Western societies they inherited from the optimistic and progressive 19th Century; all that was left were the “fragments … shored against … ruins.” Almost all thinkers of the period “entre les deux guerres” began in despair to search, not for restoration, even in what Eliot called history’s “cunning passages, contrived corridors,” but in a new cycle commencing with a new kind of world, one without history at all: the utopias of socialism, meaning a “thousand year kingdom” of classless totalism, military in character, whether fascist, nazi, communist or imperial; in short, both Western and Eastern. That search, or rather that drift on time’s current is after about 90 years finding a term to describe what is happening as “globalization,” a word that remains not only undefined, but worse, unexamined, although its proponents and detractors alike talk a language derived from the denizens of the “ruins” Eliot described in “The Wasteland.”


It must be wondered what Lawrence might have made of our present questions and debate over the nature and fate of “the first fused nucleus of the ovum.” Of all the writers and social philosophers from those times he was perhaps the one most on the “qui vive,” alert to the actual moment, utterly disillusioned and no longer prepossessed by our Western inheritance, living as he seems to have done from the time he started THE RAINBOW during the first years of WW I in a consciousness (as well as intuitive unconsciousness) renewed daily, writing about society as he found it daily, and the problems it posed in present time to suffering individuals. What he argued over and searched for in all his successive work was a new ethos, some sort of possible moral position from which he could confront the newly-discovered knowledge of matter and the sources of life to forge methods of education and social relations for its new structure. That is a problem one doesn’t see being examined by any society today, let alone discussed in his fundamental terms; rather, it’s avoided and evaded, if regularly pronounced upon, at least in the United States, and principally by adherents of any and all churches, sects, cults, faiths and beliefs here and elsewhere — religions that Lawrence did away with in THE PLUMED SERPENT. That novel, seldom seriously discussed, was his thought experiment in fascist-style “leadership.” Being Lawrence, he abandoned the entire revolutionary program it manifested even before it was published, already moving on to new visions in search of … apocalypse? The Apocalypse presaged in 1945 by the opening of the Atomic Age with the two first bombs has not yet arrived; neither has it been passed by — as yet; nor has it been overlooked and forgotten as though lost in some twist of the maze in history’s corridor.

Peculiar to the debate over the funding of stem cell research are the disclaimers by medical biologists that they are not pursuing work which is an affront to the intrinsic dignity of mankind. Objectors attack their experiments using frozen human embryos as “unethical,” the buzzword of our time, reserved for secular free-thinkers mainly by the religious and by conservative thinkers, whether located in Academe or sitting as jurists. Underlying their arguments, which are fiercely supported by obscurantists and ignoramuses, may be discerned the floating shadow of untested, perhaps intrinsically untestable, anti-Darwinian theory, moving like a Great White Shark with remoras attached to its belly, one named “Creationism,” another “Intelligent Design.” The former is a term deriving from faith, seemingly a human disposition that cannot be examined or argued with. It prefers to remain forever obscured in the darkness of our unknown psyche, in the realm of the Soul. The latter term is falsely linked to Technology, which is woven from our very origins into the rise and later history of our species. Science, however, is a very recent development of high civilization. Too often it is confused with technology, although it is not necessarily harmful or wrong to speak about molecular biology, for instance, as a science, and its workers to call themselves scientists.

In today’s United States these people find themselves on the defensive, which is terribly embarrassing. Our lawmakers and courts have been quarreling, quibbling, caviling and chopping logic over the notion of “human life,” entangled in the nets of theology and held fast by beliefs founded on nothing but faith itself, although the sources of faith are unknowable. The American philosopher Santayana called it, reasonably enough, “Animal Faith,” an equable term, since no one doubts that we exist as animals in this world. What is so unfortunate for medical scientists is their hope to distinguish “good” biotech from “bad,” when the history of technology shows that our inventions have been morally neutral from time out of mind, when fire itself was captured, if not tamed. Their tinkering with this or that politically-driven “regulatory structure” is simply an exercise in purposelessness; worse, it courts futility in its anxiety to maintain a strong flow of tax dollars.

Furthermore, what their very defensiveness conceals is failure of nerve. That failure is not theirs alone: our contemporary society seems to suffer from it, perhaps because it has refused to recognize where technology and science have brought us at this hour. If one steps back for a moment to view “moral and/or ethical” objections from another perspective, e.g., that of the Hindu or Buddhist, the Taoist or Confucian world-view, one may be permitted to wonder if there is any such thing as “human dignity.” From those doctrines, our science of “life,” that is, the life of this walking, talking, sometimes even thinking, aggregation of atoms, manifests itself to us as a contraption of relatively stable protein molecules, themselves constantly in process of vanishing down the Black Hole of virtuality, as physics now strongly suggests, when it tells us that the “particles” of which quarks are made, bosons and mesons and such, seem to pop into existence from nowhere momentarily and pass out again into …? And the quarks themselves constitute hadrons, from which parts of the atom are assembled. What then of a frozen “throwaway embryo,” a 32-cell blastocyte, or even the single cell of the just-fertilized ovum? It is, like our grown selves, illusory, a mere epiphenomenon of mysterious “matter.” Mysterious because we cannot approach it; at best we simply express what we suppose it is by some scribbled letters and numbers on the chalkboard as an equation in mathematics. Spirit or soul or personhood, as the sources by which we hope to assert moral rights, are themselves words, reifications of abstract (and abstracted) ideas — important only to the West. We can speak them; but by no volume of shouting can we directly experience them. The underlying forms of matter described by mathematics and manipulated by biotechnology may be “universal”; still, they are neither “life” nor even “existence.” They are formal entities, perhaps only Platonic Ideas. Far from being meaningless, they are nevertheless nothing we can grasp. On the other hand, they are the food of philosophers; and what is digested by them is recycled at second and third hand as “ethics.”

Our parochial, indeed provincial concerns, regularly elaborated in OpEd columns as “ethics,” are presumptive Western notions; in short, the rather limited — and unexamined — theater of accidental beliefs partial to a population of Judeo-Christian-Islamic absolutists who assert a theological authority founded on texts descended from what scribes made from ancient Western events and traditions. But our texts account for neither technology, which long preceded them, nor the science based on its tools today.

The anxiety of scientists in the face of the politics of public opinion cloaked in the mantles of Church and State, like Æsop’s donkey in a discarded lion’s hide, is our most dismaying symptom of cowardice “spreading like a gradual stain,” to paraphrase the poet Auden. Worse, it reveals what the poet termed the “intellectual disgrace” that stares “from every human face.” Such fear is the awful fissure in the façade of a civilization we strive to prop up as our Western “inheritance.” Absent the necessary ethos of a strong scientific philosophy, the whole rickety shebang crumbles into dust. And it has yet to be thoroughly explored. Certainly it has not been announced.

Returning to Lawrence’s “prophetic soul,” it can be suggested that his criticism and denunciation of the failure and collapse of Europe’s ancient regime still applies to our contemporary ethical morass. The light he hoped to discover was one that might provide compass bearings on the direction we seem now to have taken, blundering along for nearly a century, driven by perhaps uncontrollable forces along what cunning passage of history?

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