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.

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[*] 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.