Lawrence Festival

Dan Jacobson

One of the functions that took place during the recent D. H. Lawrence Festival in Santa Fe was a procession to the shrine on the Lawrence ranch, outside Taos. A few hundred people must have taken part in the ceremony. After listening to a string quartet play Schubert everyone formed up in a line. A drum was beaten somewhere ahead, girls in white robes scattered flowers, and we all went zig-zagging up a path to the little concrete structure in which Lawrence’s ashes are reputedly incorporated. In front of it is the tombstone of Frieda Lawrence, and of her third husband, Angelo Ravagli; above it is the phoenix symbol, in stone or cement, which Lawrence had adopted as his own.

There, while the clouds spattered down some drops of rain, and the wind hissed among the swaying pines, an actor and an actress read some of Lawrence’s writings on New Mexico. The actor was dressed in a khaki jacket and trousers of a somewhat military cut; the actress was preternaturally red in the checks and black about the eyes. Somebody else played a flute solo. Then people filed into the little hut to sign the visitors’ book. Subsequently, back on the campus of the College of Santa Fe, where a conference on Lawrence’s work was taking place, Professor Leslie Fiedler described the procession as ‘obscene’. To me it had seemed just absurd and vaguely humiliating. It reminded me a little of all those other ad hoc ceremonial occasions making a stab at solemnity that one sees from time to time on television: the crowning of the Sportswoman of the Year, say, or perhaps the accession to independence and full nationhood of some tiny island in the middle of the Pacific.

About ten days later, in a place called Questa just south of the Colorado border, I saw a procession of a different kind. Questa was a bare, sprawling scatter of clapboard habitations and stores in the foothills of the Rockies, with bristling mountains on one side of the highway and nothing very much on the other. The place appeared to be full of delapidated hoardings, boarded-up windows, broken roofs. Hank’s Auto Spares had obviously done no business for a year or two; the same seemed to be true of the Emmanuel Deliverance Church; the same of Betty’s Beauty Salon, a tin box with shuttered windows and an open door hanging askew. It was a hot, dry, windless day; the pines on the mountains had monopolised all the available shade, leaving none for Questa and the exposed flank of semi-desert on the other side. And there, with a girl carrying a red and black flag at the head of them, and a saffron-robed, shaven-headed Oriental bringing up the rear, about thirty young men and women, dressed in rags, sandals, thongs, gauze, copper, feathers, ribbons, tank-tops, and other such finery, formed themselves up into processional order. Two or three were carrying pikes decorated with streamers on which mystic symbols were inscribed; another couple were carrying shallow drums, rather like tambourines without bells. There were whites among them, blacks, several Orientals, people who could have been Mexicans. The drums were struck, a small chant rose to the sky, and they began marching alongside the highway. They were as ragged, as obscure, as devout and self-involved, as some medieval band on an old woodcut. One might have imagined them marching from village to village, between heathlands or cultivated fields, with one pointed church-steeple signalling the way to the next, above the horizon. But amid those stunning, excessive distances, on that bald highway, against the side of that mountain, they appeared to be of no more consequence than so many ants toiling along the bank of a ditch. Where had they come from? Where were they going? The nearest place, east or west, was 30 miles distant. There was no vehicle in sight that could have brought them to Questa, or that was going to take them away. On they marched. Tap, tap, tap, went their little drums. Trample, shuffle, trample, went their bare or sandalled feet on the side of the road.

They infuriated the driver of the car ahead of me at the filling-station. He was a plump, busy, heavily-belted man, dressed in the inevitable pair of jeans and a braggartly off-white Stetson hat. His car had a Texas number-plate; his wife, mother and children sat inside it. ‘We don’t want any more of that sort ... We got enough of them already, you bet ... There go your tax-dollars, feeding and keeping them ... You see that one with the flag to stop the traffic? She wouldn’t stop us in Texas ... Yeah, one sidewipe and there’d be twenty of them gone ...’ These remarks were directed at the wizened proprietor of the filling-station, who wore a long-peaked cap with the name of a brand of oil stitched on it, and who agreed, though without much vehemence, to everything his customer said. It was extraordinary how threatened the Texan appeared to feel by that procession on the road below: but one just had to look at the flushed face under the brim of his hat to see also that it was precisely the vulnerability, the forlornness, the hopelessness of the pilgrims that had roused his malevolence. Yet for all his words, he did nothing. By the time my car had been filled with petrol he was gone. The pilgrims had perhaps covered two hundreds yards on their march to nowhere.

I wonder what that Texan would have said if he had known that valuable tax-dollars had been expended to bring me to New Mexico, too, along with a group of other British writers – Stephen Spender, Richard Hoggart, Margaret Drabble, Al Alvarez – and various Beat American poets and novelists (California vintage ’57), and academics from different universities, to consider such issues as ‘D. H. Lawrence and his Influence on Modern Society’ and ‘D. H. Lawrence and his Influence on the Development of the Novel’. Thom Gunn, the Anglo-American poet, was also there; and so was Derek Walcott from the West Indies. Participating in our cogitations was an audience of several hundred who had paid for the privilege of attending (and had thus presumably relieved some of the strain on the pocket-book of the Texan). Almost all these participants were white, middle-class and middle-aged, though there were some students among them; many of those I spoke to wanted to be writers, and seemed to think that attending conferences of this kind would somehow help them to fulfil their ambitions; a few, very few, were intensely knowledgeable and passionate Lawrencians.

Some of the formal sessions of the conference were conscientious and interesting; some were conscientious and boring; some were merely perfunctory. Occasionally there were moments of the kind of unintentional comedy that always arises on such occasions. When William Burroughs – wearing a grey suit, a grey tie, and an expression like that of the pastor of a back-street spiritualist chapel who has no misgivings about the world to come, but a few about making ends meet in this one – was asked about D. H. Lawrence’s influence on fiction, he replied that he had been influenced by The Plumed Serpent. That, he seemed to feel, exhausted the possibilities of the entire subject. When Keith Sagar, the D. H. Lawrence biographer and editor, declared that every great writer needed ‘courage, discipline and intelligence’, I saw a girl with an open notebook solemnly copy down these desiderata in a column, which she then carefully boxed in. What, I wondered, would she do with the list? Learn it off by heart? Give marks to all the writers she subsequently read on the Courage-Discipline-Intelligence Scale? Be unable to remember the occasion when the words were uttered and to whom exactly they were supposed to apply? A great soldier, maybe? A great explorer? A secondary school-teacher? In the meantime, Sagar, speaking manfully of ‘integrity’, ‘independence’, ‘wholeness’ and so forth, as though saying the words was the same thing as displaying the qualities, had gone on to urge us to buy his book on Ted Hughes, which he declared to be ‘far more important’ than his book on Lawrence. Since his biography of Lawrence[*] had struck me as being of value chiefly for its photographs and hardly at all for its scissors-and-pasty text, this seemed to be rather more moderate praise of the other book than its author had intended.

Wallowing about over many square miles of dusty desert, Santa Fe has no public transport of any kind, not even any taxis; the participants in the conference were thus wholly dependent upon the transport arrangements made by the organisers. This led to many tense, not to say paranoiac moments; but on the whole the arrangements worked better than might have been expected. Some cars were driven by handsome young men in blazers who worked for the college; most were in the hands of local girls who had been specially enrolled for the occasion. These girls wanted (variously) to write, to paint, to illustrate children’s books, to ‘work in leather and fabrics’, to do silversmithing, to study a subject, Suggestology, of which I had never heard before, and which had something to do with hemispheric dominance in the brain; one wanted to build kites for a living, but first intended spending some time in Colorado, on her own, in a tent, while she ‘got her head together’. Santa Fe (like Taos, on a smaller scale) catered lavishly for all such activities. A notice-board in a local launderette was covered with advertisements for ‘Holistic Fitness in Personal Health’; ‘The HQ for Spiritual, Metaphysical and Self Development’; ‘Guatemalan Clothes, Bags, Weaving’; ‘Genji Karate’; ‘How You Can Get in Touch with You’; and ‘The Healing Arts (Massage, Macrobiotics) and Various Expressive Forms (Drawing, Dance, Bongos)’.

The mountains looked down on all of this, and more; and from our motel rooms, while we waited for transport, we looked up at them through a mesh of electricity and telephone wires, hanging above a jagged frieze of neon signs, giant trucks parked in herds on stretches of asphalt, and the random roof-lines of the Sizzlin’ Steak House, the Biggest Car Muffler Dealer in New Mexico, the Santa Fe Roller Disco, and the rest. Beyond all these was the desert. Flat, pallid surfaces almost entirely devoid of growth alternated with fishback rises, dotted with juniper trees about the height of a man. The higher the rises, the taller were the trees upon them. From some points on the outskirts of the city nothing could be seen but such plains and spotted slopes, in alternate stripes or corrugations, going back for what looked like a hundred miles; elsewhere the mountains filled the horizon. The colours of the desert were yellow, biscuit, ash, rose, brick, silvery green, sullen green. Hardly a human mark or scratch was to be seen beyond the mess of the city: but if you went out along the highways you would find at intervals, under bloated plastic and neon signs, all-American strips or zips of hamburger joints, motels, gas-stations and used-car lots. Then desert and mountains again, until the next desolate, garish strip – desolate both because of the overpowering emptiness of the spaces around them and because of the notion of what is human, alive, companionable, entertaining, necessary, that these places reveal. The emptier the country, the more intensely must the people who live in each rickety, haphazard cluster of buildings feel the need to assert themselves; the more strident their self-assertion, the more intolerable still the silence beyond them.

The landscapes of New Mexico and Colorado are the most dramatic I have ever seen: not even those of Southern Africa are more stark and imposing; or bring together such heights with such widths, such bareness with so much swarthy growth; or have unleashed above them such spectacular electric storms, with cat-like leapings of lightning from the mountain-tops into the valleys. It is a curious fact that, with a few exceptions like Mark Twain or the historian Francis Parkman, American writers have on the whole not managed to make imaginatively available to their readers the splendour of the country’s landscapes. More often they merely offer, in Whitmanesque fashion, catalogues of what the country contains. Being there, one can more readily understand their failure. Again and again one finds oneself flinching away from the view, almost as if one were dazzled by a very bright light: it is too much, incommensurate with everything else, one’s own consciousness not least. The movie-makers have done better than the writers in conveying the sense both of oppression and of release that this can produce.

As for Lawrence, nothing he ever saw or felt was beyond the reach of his pen. No one to my knowledge has written better than him about New Mexico: this in itself was some justification for the attempt that was being made by the locals to ‘kidnap’ him. (‘I suppose that if this conference were being held in Australia,’ Margaret Drabble said tartly at one point, ‘it would be all about Kangaroo.’) I can remember being much moved by my first reading, many years ago, of the lyrical description of the ranch which brings St Mawr to an end: it was not until I visited the place, and then spent a few days in Taos, that I realised how much of the power of the passage springs from its literal accuracy, whether in speaking of the dust-storms that sweep across the plain, or of the ‘blackish crack’ of the Rio Grande Valley, or of the curved ‘outwatching’ mountains above. But that isn’t all. What fills out the description, what makes us feel as we read it that the landscape is yielding its secrets to the language, even while the language itself is being shaped by the landscape, is that it is also a passionate and sardonic history of the ranch, and of all the human efforts at taming the wilderness which had finally petered out at that very spot. Written, what is more, when conditions up there must have been incomparably more arduous than they are now, by a man who knew his own state of health to be constantly at the very edge of a total collapse.

Lawrence had a taste (at least on paper) for home-made cults, processions and ceremonials; in novels like The Plumed Serpent and tales like ‘The Woman Who Rode Away’, he indulged it to excess. He also had strongly developed messianic impulses; the lonelier he felt himself to be, and the more his work was vilified and persecuted, the stronger those impulses became.[†] All that said, one can still be pretty sure that he would have loathed the reverential procession to the shrine on the ranch, as well as the conference, not to speak of the other concurrent festive events – a fancy-dress ball at Taos, an open-air recital of his works in Santa Fe. Those obscure pilgrims in Questa would probably have roused his sympathy and curiosity more than all the literary folk who came to the shrine. Yet I suspect that he would have despised the pilgrims for looking so messy and pathetic; he might also have found offensive the mixture of races among them.

Of course, everyone who took part in the festival was at least intermittently conscious of the ironies of the whole affair. Lawrence despised tourism: yet here he was being used as a tourist attraction. He hated the enlightened, well-to-do middle-class: yet here, at the open-air recital, were his most bitingly satirical and contemptuous poems about the bourgeoisie being read by stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Eve-Marie Saint, to whoops of delight from a well-to-do, enlightened middle-class audience. He was (to put it moderately) unenthusiastic about academics: yet here were numbers of professors competing for what one can only call ‘bits’ of Lawrence, and comparing this conference with that held last year in North Carolina or South Dakota. Lawrence spent much of his working life wondering how he would pay the rent for one tumbledown cottage after another: yet here were thousands of dollars from private, state and federal funds being spent to create around him and his work a grand occasion for Santa Fe. One further ironic circumstance, which occurred to me only after the conference was over, was that almost all the writers and professors who took part in it were older than Lawrence was at the time of his death.

Underneath all this, however, there is a yet deeper irony. The fact is that if you are a great writer, which Lawrence was, and if in addition you set yourself up as a prophet and guide to all mankind, which Lawrence did, this is the kind of thing that is bound to happen to you – eventually. In the long run, the wishes of the public are always much, much stronger than those of the people to whom it chooses to do reverence.

[*] The Life of D. H. Lawrence: An Illustrated Biography, Eyre Methuen, 256 pp., £9.95, 28 February, 0 413 39950 8.

[†] One can clearly see this reciprocal process at work in D. H. Lawrence’s Nightmare (Harvester, 420 pp., £8.50, 28 May 1979, 0 85527 746 7), the excellent study by Paul Delany of Lawrence’s experiences during the Great War. During those years, when The Rainbow was banned and he could not find a publisher for Women in Love, he and Frieda, tormented by the thought of the killings across the Channel and condemned to live in dire penury, were the target of much official harassment as suspected German spies. Unlike Mr Sagar’s biography, Professor Delaney’s book persuasively conveys a sense of the rhythms of its subject’s life: we feel in it the alternations and the connections between effort and illness, humour and rage, megalomania and despair, withdrawal and millennial expectation, creativity and disintegration.