Burning Man: The Ascent of D.H. Lawrence 
by Frances Wilson.
Bloomsbury, 488 pp., £25, May 2021, 978 1 4088 9362 3
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‘Never trust the artist,’ D.H. Lawrence wrote, ‘trust the tale.’ It must be his most famous aphorism – David Lodge even called it ‘a cardinal principle of modern hermeneutics’. It has proved especially popular with critics who want to deny authors the last word on their work. ‘What if a reader construes a poem in a way you felt you didn’t mean?’ an interviewer once asked Larkin. ‘I should think he was talking balls,’ came the robust reply. But most writers might accept that, in reality, proceedings are only ever partially under their conscious control: the old poets would have called this ‘inspiration’. ‘I don’t pretend that I quite understand/My own meaning when I would be very fine,’ Byron said. There is good sense in the proposition that literary works often turn out different to what their originators thought they intended. That is, after all, only to say of writing what is true of any human action: intentions are a lot more complicated and people less self-acquainted than you might think.

But Lawrence was referring to something more mysterious than that. He was saying that the tale and its artist are intrinsically opposed to each other, that the conscious artist is a sort of necessary evil who sets out (in Samuel Johnson’s phrase) ‘to point a moral and adorn a tale’. Once things are moving, the tale breaks into what Lawrence calls ‘art-speech’ and discovers an autonomous life. The remark appears in his extraordinary account of American literature where the immediate point is that Hawthorne and others intuitively elude the Puritanism that otherwise constitutes their element. But Lawrence generally thought of the novel, ‘the one bright book of life’, in this magical way: it had a vitality and selfhood all of its own. This was in part an extrapolation from his own experience: ‘I am doing a novel,’ he writes in an early letter, ‘which I have never grasped. Damn its eyes, there I am at p.145 and I’ve no notion what it’s about.’ The process grew no more transparent as he aged: ‘The story came as it did, by itself,’ he said of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, ‘so I left it alone.’ He loathed novelists like Flaubert, whom he conceived to be control freaks, and whose books were ‘carefully plotted and arranged developments’, quite lacking the crucial quality he called ‘unexpectedness’. The artist may sit down to write with all sorts of intention, but the properly living novel will swiftly evade them: ‘If you try to nail anything down in the novel,’ he wrote, ‘either it kills the novel, or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail.’ There you have the novel as life form, at once vital and elusive like the animals that Lawrence depicts with such profound affection in his poems. ‘Your sort of gorgeousness,/Dark and lustrous,’ Lawrence hails a turkey, ‘And skinny repulsive/And poppy-glossy,/Is the gorgeousness that evokes my most puzzled admiration.’

The line about trusting tales appears as an epigraph to Frances Wilson’s vivid and unusual new book. The quotation runs on to Lawrence’s next sentence, which constitutes a peculiar sort of commission: ‘The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.’ Its application to his own writing is obvious and the aspect of Lawrence from which his tales need to be saved is clear enough too. He is a ‘teller’ in the sense of telling you what to do – and, more particularly, what not to do: as Aldous Huxley observed, he could be ‘bloodthirstily censorious’. Lawrence had a philosophy, or as he self-deprecatingly put it, a ‘pseudo-philosophy’, coupled with a strong urge to dish out spiritual advice. ‘I want folk – English folk – to alter, and have more sense,’ as he said in a letter: he was therefore instinctively predisposed to do just what he thought novelists shouldn’t, ‘point a moral and adorn a tale’.

T.S. Eliot considered Lawrence a genius but counted among his failings ‘an incapacity for what we ordinarily call thinking’. The remark infuriated F.R. Leavis, but Lawrence himself would not have been especially wounded: what a Harvard man would ‘ordinarily call thinking’ was exactly what he was against. ‘My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect,’ he wrote to a friend. ‘We can go wrong in our minds but what our blood feels and believes and says is always true.’ ‘Mind’ is never a good word in Lawrence: the whole problem of modern life was that there was far too much mind in it, operating ‘as a director or controller of the spontaneous centres’ which should properly be in charge. Mindlessness has its attractions: ‘I would like to be a tree for a while. The great lust of roots. Root-lust. And no mind at all.’ The appeal of a novel having a life of its own, like a tree, is that it decouples it from the busy mind of its teller. Because he wrote about levels of consciousness working below the conscious mind, contemporaries sometimes described him as Freudian, but in his own eyes he was implacably opposed to Freud: he envisaged the subconscious not as the complicated product of an emotional history but something elemental, innocent and ‘pristine’. When he expands on this basic hunch in ‘think’ books such as Fantasia of the Unconscious, confidently attributing different qualities of what he called ‘blood consciousness’ to the solar plexus and the thoracic ganglion, ‘the great abdominal centre, the preconscious mind in man’, and so on, the whole thing can sound barmy. But Lawrence was not unusual among modern writers in mistrusting the discursive intellect and hating its works, including democracy, the Enlightenment, and ‘the most hateful of all shackles, the shackles of ideas and ideals’, one of the most pernicious of which is ‘love’ or ‘sex in the head’, the very last place you want it.

Such principled anti-intellectualism had implications for social policy which Lawrence was not shy to elucidate: education, for instance, had gone seriously wrong thanks to a misguided liberal attempt to illuminate ignorance (‘We have almost poisoned the mass of humanity to death with understanding’) when it should largely have been a matter of keeping people in the dark (‘The mass of mankind should never be acquainted with the scientific biological facts of sex: never’). His metaphysic described an alternative, unlettered kind of educative process that ditched mental consciousness for blood consciousness and achieved a very different kind of self-improvement. ‘The final aim of every living thing, creature, or being is the full achievement of itself,’ he says in his Study of Thomas Hardy, a sentiment which might have been uttered by John Stuart Mill himself. But what Lawrence meant by ‘self’ was not to be confused with the ‘cheap egotism’ of the ‘self-conscious little ego’ described by modern individualism. ‘I know that life, and life only, is the clue to the universe,’ Lawrence announced at his most oracular; but there is life and then there is Life, ‘with a capital L’. ‘A thing isn’t life just because somebody does it,’ he said – a rather magnificent if disquieting remark. This momentous Lawrentian ‘Life’, which gathers up so many of the positive things in his universe, turns out to be something immense and encompassing, a vitalistic imponderable into which, when things are going well, recognisable old-style individuals disappear completely: ‘Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!’ as he says in full Shelleyan mode in ‘Song of a Man who has come through’. Lawrence’s rhetoric is often one of self-realisation but the implications, if you follow them up, are profoundly anti-individualistic: the Native Americans whom he celebrates in Mornings in Mexico, for instance, don’t really have experiences of their own at all for what they go through is ‘generic, non-individual … an experience of the human bloodstream, not of the mind or spirit’. And since ‘Life’ is only ever going to be a minority pursuit (‘Try as you may, you can never make the mass of men throb with full awakenedness’) such beliefs soon yield to authoritarianism in a vague and dislikeable way: ‘I don’t believe in either liberty or democracy,’ he wrote in a letter, ‘I believe in the divine right of natural aristocracy.’ Most people don’t really count for much because they give their blood consciousness such a wide berth: they are ‘the nihilists, the intellectual, the hopeless people – Ibsen, Flaubert, Thomas Hardy’. You know, just hopeless people.

But to stack his opinions up like this is to misrepresent them in some way. Lawrence did not always sound solemn about his metaphysic: he sometimes addresses the world in a voice of wild glee that is funny, even camp: ‘There you are, and you know it. So stick out your tummy gaily, my dear, with a Me voilà. With a Here I am! With an Ecco mi! With a Da bin ich! There you are, dearie.’ No one has ever written polemic quite like that. Still, he meant every word. With the possible exception of Yeats, no modern figure so clearly exemplifies the problem of coming to terms with a writer whose guiding ideas seem so deeply uninteresting. ‘You were silly like us,’ Auden wrote in ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’, an unusual note to strike in a formal elegy but also generous since Yeats was a good deal sillier in his beliefs than most of us. Yet Auden goes on to describe the way Yeats’s poetry survived the fallibilities of its creator, and most sympathetic critics of Lawrence have seen their task as something similar: a matter of showing him, as Frank Kermode put it, ‘taming metaphysic by fiction’. Part of Lawrence would have approved of this approach. He thought that all novelists of consequence (‘even Balzac’) had ‘a didactic purpose, otherwise a philosophy’, and that this was precisely what was wrong with them: the philosophy was nearly always ‘directly opposite to their passional inspiration’. It was passional inspiration, which arose from a darkness deeper than intellect, that counted. Exactly how he saw this applying to himself is unclear: perhaps he considered himself an exception; and of course the matter is complicated by the fact that in his case the ‘philosophy’ was all about the virtues of ‘passional inspiration’. It was a set of big ideas that denied the viability of ideas, an encompassing theory of life which said it was impossible to theorise about life. He writes in his book about Hardy that ‘metaphysic must always subserve the artistic purpose beyond the artist’s conscious aim,’ which is all well and good but a difficult piece of advice to follow: how could you consciously aim to do something that exceeds your conscious aim? It’s a tangle of self-consciousness, like resolving to be spontaneous, or making people throb with awakenedness.

‘Instead of the philosophy being the clue to Lawrence,’ Stephen Potter wrote in 1930, ‘it will be Lawrence who is the clue to the philosophy.’ Almost a century later, Wilson takes a similar tack, although she is clearly not much taken with the philosophy in its own right: ‘For all his claims to prophetic vision,’ she writes, ‘Lawrence had little idea what was going on in the room let alone in the world.’ Her book doesn’t follow Lawrence from cradle to grave but rather concentrates on the middle years, which she divides into three: first, his embattled life in literary England during and after the Great War, a complicated and argumentative parade of Middleton Murrys and Mansfields and Morrells at cross purposes; then the couple of years spent in Italy, mostly in Florence, from 1919, and the seriously rum company he kept there; and finally, after much wandering, the three and a half years he spent in New Mexico as part of an eccentric menagerie presided over by Mabel Dodge Luhan, an American heiress who had abandoned New York to dedicate herself to saving Native American spirituality from the depredations of modernity. Avoiding the obligation to say something about everything, Wilson brings to her chosen episodes something of the imaginative density of the realist novel, which is all to the good. But this virtue is complicated by her decision to incorporate her three stages into a symbolic pattern that leads Lawrence from England’s Hell, through the Purgatory of Florence, to the paradisal heights of Taos. The Dantesque paradigm is not the biographer’s imposition, she says, but Lawrence’s own self-conception, ‘his primal plan, the complex figure in the Persian carpet’, and one that becomes obvious if you realise that every house he lived in was at a greater height than the last. At this point the inner Prodnose wonders whether the altitude of Florence really is greater than that of Eastwood, but pursuing the point feels rather lumpish, especially when Wilson states, with disarming insouciance, that it lies within ‘the biographer’s remit to edit those facts that don’t fit’. It is certainly true, anyway, that he dwelt at giddier and giddier elevations in New Mexico, although Wilson herself suggests a simple explanation for this: the tuberculosis that he persistently refused to acknowledge had by this time left his lungs in pieces and the medical advice was that it would be easier to breathe the higher up he went.

Lawrence didn’t say much about Dante, and I can’t imagine anyone less likely to warm to the idea of purgatory, but introducing the Divine Comedy does have two great virtues. Wilson calls Dante’s poem ‘the great epic of Schadenfreude … an act of therapeutic vengeance’, which is probably not the standard line: I remember being told that it spoke very well of Dante’s piety that he should place in Hell people of whom he was fond; but Wilson, a splendidly unsentimental commentator, is interested in the creativity of the uglier emotions. The excellent and now rather neglected critic Graham Hough once observed that ‘compensation for his own failures and deficiencies’ was one of the main engines driving Lawrence’s novels (his poems are a different matter) and Wilson’s version of Dante provides the prototype for an imagination often raised to its greatest achievements by vituperation and rage and the primal urge to get one’s own back. The second virtue of the Dante parallel is more paradoxical. By invoking the idea of so providential and strongly predetermined a narrative Wilson manages to convey very successfully, by contrast, the haplessness of Lawrence’s itinerant life: she is good throughout on his inability to stay still, something he observed in himself as ‘an absolute necessity to move’. So this is a highly organised life about a life that was anything but organised, a mismatch which I think Wilson recognises for she finds a similar contradictoriness in Lawrence himself. Early in Women in Love Birkin, a version of Lawrence, decides that he does ‘not believe that there was any such thing as accident’, but later on he fleetingly wonders why one even bothers struggling for ‘a coherent, satisfied life’, such as the Dantesque paradigm might supremely describe: ‘Why not drift on in a series of accidents – like a picaresque novel?’ Commenting on this, Wilson says: ‘It was the picaresque rather than the predictably shaped, pre-plotted life that Lawrence also wanted,’ implying an important wayward truth about Lawrence that cuts against the shapeliness of her elegant design.

His novels are not picaresque, but they are often at their best when they are open to Lawrentian waywardness: at such moments the parabolic momentousness encouraged by his metaphysic is sidelined by a vivid and comic sense of the accidental. A chapter called ‘Coal Dust’, from Women in Love, begins with a set piece in which Gerald, a study in emotional inadequacy, attempts to exert his horrid will over a horse, but then switches mode abruptly to describe Ursula and Gudrun wandering around town on a Sunday afternoon, overhearing the lusty commentary of the colliers as they pass. Lawrence seems both amused by the human scene and also, you feel, momentarily emancipated by the sheer inconsequence of what he is depicting. Kermode was very taken by an episode in the same novel in which Birkin and Ursula, standing in a country lane, in the middle of a passionate ding-dong about the authenticity of being, are briefly interrupted by a cyclist out for a ride. He gives them a nod (‘“Afternoon,” he said, cheerfully’) and disappears into the distance, back into whatever life it was he cycled out of. ‘That bicyclist is very typical of Lawrence,’ Kermode remarks, and he is a likeable creature partly because you can easily imagine the heavy weather that in other circumstances Lawrence might have made of a cyclist as (say) an emblem of arid intellectualism or modern egotism or something else H.G. Wells thought a good thing. ‘Don’t ask me to define the soul,’ Lawrence protested in Fantasia of the Unconscious: ‘You might as well ask a bicycle to define the young damsel who so whimsically and so god-like pedals her way along the highroad.’ Yuck. It is astounding to see how many things Lawrence found it possible to hate, and he was certainly very good at it: ‘Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable sodding rotters, the flaming sods, the snivelling, dribbling, dithering palsied pulse-less lot that make up England today.’

Wilson doesn’t warm much to Women in Love, nor does she agree with critics such as Leavis or Kermode who, in very different ways, took the big symbolic novels to be the heart of Lawrence’s achievement. The writer she celebrates is the author of what might conventionally seem minor works. The Lost Girl, for instance, is not a novel that looms large in most accounts of Lawrence’s career, though it was a successful book at the time and even won the James Tait Black Prize in 1920. Wilson herself judges it ‘both a mad and a bad book’ and, a little more appreciatively, ‘engagingly bonkers’, but she manages to write about it with infectious pleasure. Lawrence himself thought it ‘comic’ and, at least for the first two thirds, it’s full of amusement at the oddity of individuals and less obviously interested in the healthy fundamentalism of generic life. Still, this good humour breaks through what sounds like a familiar Lawrence narrative. Alvina Houghton is a frustrated young woman living in Woodhouse, a midlands mining town, which it is her ambition to escape. She fears becoming an old maid, but her aims for life are properly Lawrentian: ‘Not mere marriage – oh dear no! But a profound and dangerous inter-relationship.’ Neither the local plumber nor a young man just down from Oxford cuts the mustard and prospects look bleak, but then things pick up when Alvina’s desultory father invests in a small theatre and she begins to enjoy the freakishness of the visiting acts, such as ‘the lady who did marvellous things with six ferrets’. Like Sleary’s circus in Hard Times, these ‘odd fish’, as Alvina thinks of them, represent everything that ‘the mechanical routine of modern work’ seeks to crush.

The right man for a dangerous inter-relationship does turn up, of course, in the shape of one Ciccio, part of a bizarre troupe, the Natcha-Kee-Tawaras, who do a crowd-pulling act called ‘The White Prisoner’: they are effectively a spoof of the primitivist authenticity that Lawrence elsewhere venerates so fulsomely. Ciccio is, as Hough remarked with some regret, ‘one of the long series of saturnine men of the people – gypsies, gamekeepers or what not – who carry off middle-class women and do them so much good’; but he is also unmistakably a bit of a bore. In this case, doing the woman good means taking Alvina off to the mountainous country north of Naples where she is absorbed by ‘the grand pagan twilight of the valleys, savage, cold, with a sense of ancient gods who knew the right for human sacrifice’ – which in a manner of speaking is what she has willingly signed up for. It is a creaky novel, although, as Wilson says, it has some wonderfully evocative writing about place, and the Woodhouse part of the book is full of the observational comedy of cheerful contempt that Lawrence, always finely attuned to the nuances of class, did so well – as in his depiction of Albert, the charmless Oxford undergraduate: ‘His impression was one of uncanny flatness, something like a lemon sole.’ David Garnett thought Lawrence the best mimic he had ever known and you might suspect his gift in such passages of wonderfully unfair skewering. At the same time, as the novel moves away from English failure and towards Italian fulfilment, there are quite a lot of rapt sentences that with all Lawrence’s pugnacity positively dare you to make fun of them: ‘Her eyes were wide and neutral and submissive, with a new, awful submission as if she had lost her soul.’ That such different narrative voices should not just co-exist but have a strange mutual dependency is both striking and characteristic: ‘To me … he seems often to write very badly,’ as Eliot said, ‘but to be a writer who had to write often badly in order to write sometimes well.’

One of the best things about The Lost Girl is a seedy character called Mr May who manages the theatre. He is a chancer, down on his luck and full of self-pity, but he has a forlorn charm; he does a cracking impersonation of a pug that goes down very well with the audience; and he gets on with Alvina in a wholly sexless way, ‘a dove-grey, disconsolate bird pecking the crumbs of Alvina’s sympathy’. Mr May is based on Maurice Magnus, a disreputable character whom Lawrence met in Italy in 1919: a scrounger and a phoney, an American drifting around Europe with no visible means of support, he just about sustained himself a notch or two below shabby genteel. Lawrence was fascinated and disgusted by him in equal measure. They met through the novelist Norman Douglas whom Lawrence had known years earlier as an assistant editor on the English Review and who was now established in Florence where he dedicated himself principally to pederasty. (According to Huxley, his conversation turned exclusively on boys, sex and drink.) Lawrence thought that, despite their friendship, Douglas despised Maurice for being vulgar, and Lawrence himself considered Maurice ‘a common little bounder’, deriding his assiduous attempts to convey that ‘he dealt with the best shops, don’t you know, and stayed in the best hotels’; but at the same time Lawrence grudgingly conceded that there was ‘this curious delicacy and tenderness and wistfulness’ to him. His life was chaotic in a way which clearly both drew and repelled Lawrence. It ended with Maurice killing himself as his creditors circled in. He left behind a suicide note specifying that he should be ‘buried first class’, adding helpfully ‘my wife will pay.’ They had been estranged for years, and she didn’t.

Lawrence’s​ Memoir of Maurice Magnus is another of the more obscure works that Wilson’s book thrusts into the limelight. It was originally printed as an introduction to Magnus’s own Memoirs of the Foreign Legion, the posthumously published account of his misadventures as a legionnaire, a not very interesting ‘the noise! the people!’ sort of reminiscence. It turns on the revelation that life in the Foreign Legion is unspeakably awful, which does not seem a great moral awakening: the accommodation is dreadful, the uniforms don’t fit and his comrades are ‘the dregs of the lowest of human society’. Lawrence’s memoir, on the other hand, is spry and funny and exasperated: he details their encounters with a sharp-edged toleration, even an admiration, for the sheer tenacity of the shameless rascal. The memoir deserves a wider currency though whether it is, as Lawrence himself said, his ‘best single piece of writing, as writing’, an opinion Wilson endorses, is a matter of taste. Max Beerbohm didn’t think much of it: ‘Pages and pages of stuff,’ he complained, ‘which an artist could have done in twenty paragraphs.’ Beerbohm is certainly right that the memoir is meandering and anecdotal and what Birkin would have called a series of accidents like a picaresque novel, but then that is the principle of its success. For the most part Lawrence casts himself in the midst of these moral idiots as a ‘poor wondering worldling’, and there are only flashes of the superior judgment that comes from possessing a metaphysic – as when Lawrence wonders whether he prefers Maurice or a peasant they have encountered. Which is a no-brainer: ‘For his mindlessness I would have chosen the peasant: and for his strong blood-presence.’

Potter claimed that ‘an appreciation of Lawrence must always be made in a half-antagonistic way,’ which seems to me very true, and Wilson’s portrait, which is frank about Lawrence’s tiresomeness as well as laudatory about his genius, does just that. Lawrence would certainly not have demurred at the prospect of readerly antagonism. Middleton Murry founded the Adelphi to provide a platform for Lawrence’s philosophical views, but the opinion piece about the disaster of England which he duly produced turned out to be so vituperative that Murry considered it unpublishable, saying it would ‘only make enemies’. ‘As if that weren’t what I want,’ Lawrence replied. It’s not hard to see what was objectionable in him. You don’t need to believe in original sin to think that blood might not be the answer to most human dilemmas. ‘I would rather have an ounce of human “consciousness” than a universe full of “abdominal” afflatus and hot, unconscious, “soulless”, mystical throbbing,’ Wyndham Lewis complained – though, it should be said, Lewis’s own political career demonstrates that believing in individualism and ‘mind’ does not always safeguard you from ideological error. Hough once wondered what might have happened to Lawrence ‘if he had not found it necessary also to become a prophet’; but, as he knew, the question is imponderable because the scenario is unimaginable. Wilson illustrates in affectionate detail how Lawrence the man could be extremely provocative, and his greatest prose is really the continuation of that character trait, as much in his brilliantly errant style as in the perilous ‘metaphysic’ underwriting it. Everything he wrote was uneven, but then ‘evenness’ could hardly be a virtue for an advocate of ‘unexpectedness’, and you find passages in the minor works that conjure his native truculence into something completely extraordinary which cannot fail to provoke. The novelist L.P. Hartley, a smooth man to Lawrence’s hairy, put it slightly grudgingly in a review for the Spectator: ‘Whether one enjoys reading Mr Lawrence or not, it is impossible to take him lying down.’

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Vol. 43 No. 18 · 23 September 2021

One feature of Frances Wilson’s Burning Man that Seamus Perry does not mention is her dismissal of D.H. Lawrence’s first literary biographer, Richard Aldington (LRB, 9 September). For Wilson, Aldington is the ‘so-called friend’ who ‘met Lawrence on no more than a handful of occasions and never liked him’, but who ‘became the self-appointed guide to his life and work’ and ‘was incontinent on the subject’. She does remark that ‘it is in the biographer’s remit to edit those facts that don’t fit,’ and maybe that is why she ignores the evidence for the close friendship between the two men over a period of fourteen years, which included Aldington’s support for Lawrence in the aftermath of the suppression of The Rainbow in 1915 and Lawrence’s expulsion from Cornwall in 1917, as well as his role in the illicit distribution of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1928.

Far from being self-appointed, Aldington was chosen in 1950 by Alexander Frere of Heinemann and Allen Lane of Penguin Books to introduce seventeen anniversary editions of Lawrence’s work and to write the biography; they recognised his clear-eyed awareness of the complexities of Lawrence’s personality as well as his status as a discerning literary critic, thoroughly familiar with Lawrence’s output. Portrait of a Genius, But … is not ‘an offhand biography’, as Wilson puts it, but a measured, searching and profoundly touching portrait which, as its title indicates, expresses a view of Lawrence that Wilson would seem to share.

‘Being with him was like moving from an ordinary atmosphere into one of oxygen,’ Aldington wrote. ‘Everything became more exciting and vivid. But he – and we – paid for this unique self of his by the existence of his antithetical self, perverse, destructive, hating, hateful, conceited as a gutter Lucifer.’ For Aldington, Lawrence would always be the most exciting person he had ever met and his writings finer – despite the faults Aldington identified – than those of any other writer of the day. Aldington’s literary career and personal reputation were damaged hugely in subsequent years by his controversial biography of T.E. Lawrence, but his work on DHL still merits reading.

Vivien Whelpton
Woodbridge, Suffolk

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