Monday, 4 August 2014

Whatever happened to DH Lawrence?


Back in the 1970s and 80s, DH Lawrence was the big man.

Lawrence had been endorsed as one of The Great Tradition by FR Leavis (most influential British critic of the century) with the select company of Henry James, Jos Conrad, Jane Austen and George Eliot. The unsavoury antics of the obscenity trial of Lady Chatterley's lover in 1960 opened the sexual revolution for England. Even his poems were taught at school. A friend who edited a literary and humanities journal told me that fully half of the submissions were about Lawrence.

Lawrence was indeed the figurehead of the radicals in the culture war of sex versus Christianity. But it all seems terribly dated now - because although Lawrence preached and depicted a kind of sexual liberation; this was in what - to the modern politically correct Left - looks like a very traditional, indeed reactionary, set of values; not least a violent pagan mysticism which is taken way too seriously for modern tastes.

I read reasonably widely in Lawrence, but was never grabbed by anything except the book Women in Love; which I still regard as a superb achievement in parts. The writing rises to a very high level at times, and becomes an inextricable part of the novel's message.

Its greatest achievement is - for those who can respond to the style - not just to depict, but to draw the reader inside the perspective of an uber-romantic, hyper-sensitive, ultra-intense way of thinking in which (it is hoped or hinted) all problems are swept aside and transcended by the primacy of here-and-now absorption.


I would summarize Lawrence's 'problem' as the question of how to live an engaged and purposeful life without God, without marriage and without a family - he showed how momentary and detached success in the endeavour could be attained; but he failed to discover in his won life, or to depict in fiction or poetry, a real answer - because, of course, there is none.

Lawrences 'message' is impossible, disastrous even - as we now recognize; but it did take the problem seriously. Lawrence was a serious writer - even if he was also on the edge of ridiculous. Literary culture did not go beyond Lawrence, did not leave him behind because he was not good enough - it subsided back from Lawrence because he was too good.


At his best: On the edge - but not quite over the edge.

Here is a favourite passage, that recalls to me my own bursting, yearning desire for Lawrentian absorption - and recollections of moments when it was attained (for better and worse).


He stood staring at the water. Then he stooped and picked up a stone, which he threw sharply at the pond. Ursula was aware of the bright moon leaping and swaying, all distorted, in her eyes. It seemed to shoot out arms of fire like a cuttle-fish, like a luminous polyp, palpitating strongly before her.

And his shadow on the border of the pond, was watching for a few moments, then he stooped and groped on the ground. Then again there was a burst of sound, and a burst of brilliant light, the moon had exploded on the water, and was flying asunder in flakes of white and dangerous fire. Rapidly, like white birds, the fires all broken rose across the pond, fleeing in clamorous confusion, battling with the flock of dark waves that were forcing their way in. The furthest waves of light, fleeing out, seemed to be clamouring against the shore for escape, the waves of darkness came in heavily, running under towards the centre. But at the centre, the heart of all, was still a vivid, incandescent quivering of a white moon not quite destroyed, a white body of fire writhing and striving and not even now broken open, not yet violated. It seemed to be drawing itself together with strange, violent pangs, in blind effort. It was getting stronger, it was re-asserting itself, the inviolable moon. And the rays were hastening in in thin lines of light, to return to the strengthened moon, that shook upon the water in triumphant reassumption.

Birkin stood and watched, motionless, till the pond was almost calm, the moon was almost serene. Then, satisfied of so much, he looked for more stones. She felt his invisible tenacity. And in a moment again, the broken lights scattered in explosion over her face, dazzling her; and then, almost immediately, came the second shot. The moon leapt up white and burst through the air. Darts of bright light shot asunder, darkness swept over the centre. There was no moon, only a battlefield of broken lights and shadows, running close together. Shadows, dark and heavy, struck again and again across the place where the heart of the moon had been, obliterating it altogether. The white fragments pulsed up and down, and could not find where to go, apart and brilliant on the water like the petals of a rose that a wind has blown far and wide.

Yet again, they were flickering their way to the centre, finding the path blindly, enviously. And again, all was still, as Birkin and Ursula watched. The waters were loud on the shore. He saw the moon regathering itself insidiously, saw the heart of the rose intertwining vigorously and blindly, calling back the scattered fragments, winning home the fragments, in a pulse and in effort of return.

And he was not satisfied. Like a madness, he must go on. He got large stones, and threw them, one after the other, at the white-burning centre of the moon, till there was nothing but a rocking of hollow noise, and a pond surged up, no moon any more, only a few broken flakes tangled and glittering broadcast in the darkness, without aim or meaning, a darkened confusion, like a black and white kaleidoscope tossed at random. The hollow night was rocking and crashing with noise, and from the sluice came sharp, regular flashes of sound. Flakes of light appeared here and there, glittering tormented among the shadows, far off, in strange places; among the dripping shadow of the willow on the island. Birkin stood and listened and was satisfied.


Bill said...

The questions then are, would those culture warriors admit that their project was "to live an engaged and purposeful life without God, without marriage and without a family"? And would they acknowledge that this has failed and what would they say was their current project? Or do they shamelessly pretend that the old chains still need throwing off?

Smith said...

Was he a popular writer with young women?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Bill - Well phrased.

@Smith - it depends what you mean by popular. Lawrence was a high status writer, and a wide range of people found him fascinating.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Bill - Well phrased.

@Smith - it depends what you mean by popular. Lawrence was a high status writer, and a wide range of people found him fascinating.

pyrrhus said...

Lawrence had very little impact, if any, on my generation in America. The educated found him unexciting, while the uneducated have never heard of him.

Bruce Charlton said...

I should add that the classic novelist who has replaced DHL in general public esteem is Jane Austen. Both come with the FR Leavis imprimatur.

John Goes said...

Bruce, can you briefly elaborate on what you mean about Jane Austen replacing DHL in public esteem? I find this comment a little puzzling.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JG - The novelist that people are most interested by - the Jane-mania may be fading, but for the past couple of decades in England this has been Austen. She has always been much appreciated, but it didn't become mainstream until more recently.