A Fool For Love: D.H. Lawrence at 100

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D. H. Lawrence was born a little more than a hundred years ago, in September 1885. When he died in 1930, E. M. Forster, protesting the generally obtuse and malicious obituary notices, wrote that he was “the greatest imaginative novelist of his generation” – a generation that included Proust, Joyce, Kafka, and Mann. Not many critics nowadays would go that far; still, Lawrence’s standing as a major novelist seems secure.

The opposite is true of his reputation as a thinker. Lawrence wrote a great deal about politics, psychology, sexuality, and religion (most of it collected in the two volumes of Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers). Insofar as his ideas on these subjects have been considered at all, it has usually been as a shadowy backdrop to the fiction, no more intrinsically significant than, say, Eliot’s royalism. Lawrence’s portraits of birds, beasts, and flowers, of rural life, of the growth of individual consciousness, and of the relations between modern men and women – these are widely acclaimed. But his ideas are just an embarrassment. Bertrand Russell wrote that Lawrence had “developed the whole philosophy of fascism before the politicians had thought of it.” Kate Millett in Sexual Politics labeled him “the most talented and fervid” of “counterrevolutionary sexual politicians.” According to Philip Rahv, “in the political sphere … he was a fantast, pure and simple.” Susan Sontag dismissed his notions about sexuality as “reactionary” and “marred by class romanticism.” And so it goes: praise for Lawrence the artist, but for Lawrence the prophet, contempt or, at best, tactful neglect.

Every critical consensus contains a measure of truth. Lawrence said a great many foolish things, and there is no point in glossing over them. But there is not much point, either, at this late date, in dwelling on them – as though his ideas have, or ever had, some sort of influence or prestige that urgently needs to be countered. Like Nietzsche, whom he resembles in astonishingly many ways, Lawrence tried to diagnose and oppose an entire civilization, his and ours. He was defeated, even routed. But the attempt deserves more sympathetic attention than it has received. Karl Jaspers lauded Kierkegaard and Nietzsche for having “dared to be shipwrecked”: “They are so to speak, representative destinies, sacrifices whose way out of the world leads to experiences for others. … Through them we have intimations of something we could never have perceived without such sacrifices, of something that seems essential, which even today we cannot adequately grasp.” To many who are ambivalent about modernity, Lawrence also revealed something “we cannot adequately grasp” that nonetheless “seems essential”; and if he often made a fool of himself in the process, it was an indispensable, even a heroic, folly.

Lawrence’s starting point was the same problem that had confronted Kierkegaard and Nietzsche: nihilism, or the “death of God.” The modern age, beginning with the Enlightenment, had seemed to promise a complete liberation from traditional dogmas. Previously unquestioned loyalties – religious, political, racial, familial – were eroded by the spread of philosophical materialism and ethical individualism. But since then (to put the intellectual history of the last two hundred years into a single sentence) a question has gradually dawned in those countries where modernity has taken root: If the beliefs that formerly made life seems worth living -- beliefs about God, political authority, racial uniqueness, and sexual destiny – if these are seen to be illusions, then what does make life worth living?

The question is dramatized memorably in John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography. The young Mill fell into an intense depression because he had no sustaining illusions – or, as he put it, because “the habit of analysis tends to wear away the feelings.” It is hard to think of two thinkers more different than Mill and Lawrence, yet this pithy and poignant phrase of Mill’s exactly expresses Lawrence’s sense of the modern predicament. Like so many nineteenth-century thinkers, Mill had discovered that criticism could liberate but not motivate. There were plenty of traditional dogmas left to criticize in his time, so he kept at criticism and made an honorable career of it. But things were different for Lawrence.

It may be different nowadays to appreciate just how enlightened early twentieth-century England was, at least compared with late-twentieth-century America. “Bloomsbury” is now a byword for ultra-sophistication; but it’s also true that intellectual and moral emancipation were far more widely diffused – the prosperity and stability of Victorian had produced an extraordinary cultural flowering. As regards anything that deserves to be called liberation, Ursula Brangwen, Lawrence’s most notable heroine, was miles ahead of most contemporary feminists; and the same relation holds between her counterpart, Rupert Birkin, and the vaunted New Male. Both are, like most of Lawrence’s protagonists, like Lawrence himself, aiming neither to defy traditional values nor to resurrect them, but rather to imagine a way of life that takes their disappearance for granted.

So much has been written about Lawrence’s “neo-primitivism” and “nostalgia” that it seems worth stressing how far in advance he was of most present-day progressives, at least in one respect. He saw all the way to the end of modern emancipation; and though he sometimes cursed it, he never expected, or even hoped, that we could avoid it. All he wanted was that we survive it. One of his most striking statements about the modern dilemma occurs in the unpublished prologue to Women in Love:

But if there be no great philosophic idea, if, for the time being, mankind, instead of going through a period of growth, is going through a corresponding process of decay and decomposition from some old, fulfilled, obsolete idea, then what is the good of educating? Decay and decomposition will take their own way. It is impossible to educate for this end, impossible to teach the world how to die away from its achieved, nullified form. The autumn must take place in every individual soul, as well as in all the people, all must die, individually and socially. But education is a process of striving to a new, unanimous being, a whole organic form. But when winter has set in, when the frosts are strangling the leaves off the trees and the birds are silent knots of darkness, how can there be a unanimous movement towards a whole summer of fluorescence? There can be none of this, only submission to the death of this nature, in the winter that has come upon mankind, and a cherishing of the unknown that is unknown for many a day yet, buds that may not open till a far off season comes, when the season of death has passed away.

And Birkin was just coming to a knowledge of the essential futility of all attempt at social unanimity in constructiveness. In the winter, there can only be unanimity of disintegration …

This is only a vast and vague intuition, not a fully worked-out philosophy of history. Clearly, though, it is not a lament for the old order or a call to reconstruct it. And whatever the coming “unknown” may turn out to be, the “old, fulfilled, obsolete idea” that we must, according to Lawrence, “die away” from certainly includes political and sexual subjection.

But it also includes – and here is the source of Lawrence’s doubtful contemporary reputation – their negation: political and sexual equality, mechanically defined. Lawrence criticized equality as an ideal, but not because he wanted property and power to be distributed unequally. He wanted them abolished or, better, outgrown. For capitalist and patriarchal ideology he had only contempt. For socialist and feminist ideology he had instead fraternal impatience, precisely because they seemed to have no higher end in view than more property and power for their constituencies. The undeniable justice of this demand did not, he believed, make it any less a dead end.

Lawrence’s poems and essays are full of furious invective against the dominion of money. “The whole great form of our era will have to go,” he declared; and he left no doubt that this meant, among other things, private ownership of the means of production. Yet he could also write: “I know that we had all better hang ourselves at once, than enter on a struggle which shall be a fight for the ownership or non-ownership of property, pure and simple, and nothing more.” He meant that a new form of ownership is not necessarily a new form of life, and that to live and work in a mass is the death of individuality, even if the mass is well fed. Although Lawrence has been condemned as an authoritarian for saying such things, I think they are just about what William Blake or William Morris would have said (perhaps a touch less stridently) if confronted with twentieth-century social democracy.

The case of feminism is more complicated. Lawrence wrote some staggeringly wrongheaded things on this subject, and some wise things. I suspect that when he contemplated the sexual future, he saw Bloomsbury writ large – which meant, to him, the triumph of androgyny as an ideal. That was deepest anathema, for though Lawrence’s lifework is a landmark in the demystification of sex, it is also a monument to the mystery of sex, which must disappear, he thought, from an androgynous world. Rilke – whom no one has ever been foolish enough to label a counterrevolutionary sexual politician – included in his Letters to a Young Poet several stirring passages on sexual equality but also this cautionary comment: “The girl and the woman, in their new, their own unfolding, will but in passing be imitators of masculine ways, good and bad, and repeaters of masculine professions. After the uncertainty of such transitions it will become apparent that women were only going through the profusion and the vicissitude of those (often ridiculous) disguises in order to cleanse their own most characteristic nature of the distorting influences of the other sex.” Lawrence devoted much passionate writing to elaborating kindred insights. They are complex insights, and cost him a great many trials and some appalling errors. But it was a post-revolutionary, not a pre-revolutionary, world that Lawrence, like Rilke, was trying to envisage.

Just what sort of world Lawrence had in mind is difficult to know. He was a prophet without a program, not only because he died too soon but also because it’s hard to be explicit about primal realities. He believed that the universe and the individual soul were pulsing with mysteries, from which men and women were perennially distracted by want or greed or dogma. Income redistribution and affirmative action were necessary preliminaries, to clear away the distractions; but if they became ends in themselves, then the last state of humankind would be worse than the first. He thought that beauty, graceful physical movement, unselfconscious emotional directness, and a sense, even an inarticulate sense, of connection to the cosmos, however defined – to the sun, to the wilderness, to the rhythms of a craft or the rites of a tribe – were organic necessities of a sane human life. He thought that reason was not something fundamental to human identity but rather a phenomenon of the surface: “I conceive a man’s body as a kind of flame … and the intellect is just the light that is shed on the things around.” He thought that every free spirit revered someone or something braver or finer than itself, and that this spontaneous reverence was the basis of any viable social order. “Man has little needs and deeper needs,” he wrote; and he complained that the workers’ and women’s movements of his time spoke chiefly to our little needs and could therefore lead only to universal mediocrity and frustration.

Lawrence did not despise socialism or feminism, but he despaired of them. It is this despair that accounts for his frequent, complementary excesses of bitterness and sentimentality. He had so few comrades, and such urgent intimations of catastrophe. “We have fallen into the mistake of living from our little needs till we have almost lost our deeper needs in a sort of madness.” Whether or not you accept Lawrence’s conception of our deeper needs, it is hard to deny the madness. “A wave of generosity or a wave of death,” he prophesied, shortly before his own death. We know which came to pass.

Like all the other great diagnosticians of nihilism, Lawrence recognized that though the irrational cannot survive, the rational does not suffice. We live, he taught, by mysterious influxes of spirit, of what Blake called “Energy.” Irrationalists make superstitions out of these mysteries, rationalists make systems, each in a futile, anxious attempt at mastery. Lawrence wanted us to submit: to give up the characteristic modern forms – possessive individualism, technological messianism, political and sexual ressentiment – of humankind’s chronic pretense at mastery. But since that sort of submission is more delicate and difficult that self-assertion, he mainly succeeded in provoking misunderstanding or abuse.

Perhaps only other inspired fools can take his measure. In The Prisoner of Sex, Norman Mailer paid Lawrence this exquisite and definitive tribute: “What he was asking for had been too hard for him, it is more than hard for us; his life was, yes, a torture, and we draw back in fear, for we would not know how to try to burn by such a light.”


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George Scialabba