Alpha and Omega

Dan Jacobson

  • Apocalypse and the Writings on Revelation by D.H. Lawrence, edited by Mara Kalnins
    Cambridge, 249 pp, £12.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 521 22407 1

Lawrence on the Revelation which was vouchsafed to the biblical John of Patmos? Those who know both writers can only fear the worst. Woozy metaphysics. Wild history. Blood-stained theology. Vituperation galore. Promises of chaos to come. Even more dismaying glimpses of redemption to follow.

Well, one does find something of these in Lawrence’s Apocalypse. But there are other elements in it which, given the author and given the text he is explicating, may come as more of a surprise. Much of the book is witty and ironic and insouciant in tone; almost all of it shows a fertile, restless intelligence hard at work; in some respects, it is a model of how to make a little learning go a long way. The resourcefulness with which Lawrence uses his reading of Nietzsche, and of Burnet’s Early Greek Philosophy, and of a couple of exegetical works on the book of Revelation, puts one in mind of T.S. Eliot’s dry observation about our differing capacities to draw sustenance from what is available: ‘Some men can absorb knowledge, the more tardy must sweat for it. Shakespeare acquired more essential history from Plutarch than most could get from the whole British Museum.’

Before going further, however, the reader is entitled to some explanatory remarks on what is contained in this edition of Apocalypse; and a few remarks also on the Revelation itself – a document with which not all subscribers to the London Review of Books are likely to be well acquainted. As far as the Lawrence text is concerned, this version of Apocalypse, which comes together with various related items by him, is the second volume of the new, complete scholarly edition of his works which is being issued by the Cambridge University Press, under the general editorship of Professor James Boulton. (The only other volume in the series to have been produced so far is the first of a projected seven which are to be devoted to the letters alone.) The present book includes a review by Lawrence of a scholarly exegesis of the Revelation; his introduction to an astrological interpretation of it entitled The Dragon of the Apocalypse and written by Frederic Carter, who was instrumental in getting Lawrence going on the subject; and three lengthy rejected fragments from his book, which contain some of the liveliest and most interesting material in the entire compendium. We are indebted to the editor of the present volume for providing us with them. There is, in addition, a copious set of editorial notes: some devoted to the provenance of the various texts presented; some to explaining allusions of all kinds which appear in the work. On the whole, the latter are very useful, though one does feel a certain lowering of the spirits on seeing that it has been thought necessary to gloss references to Lenin, Alexander the Great, the Archangel Gabriel, Plato and Nirvana. It might be added that line-numbers (in fives) are given in the margins throughout the texts: an ugly and unnecessary mode of typographical embalming.

As for the Revelation, the last book of the Christian scriptures, perhaps all that needs to be said about it here is that it is believed to have been written towards the end of the first century AD; in form, it is a Christian or Christianised version of a Jewish apocalypse. It has many of the characteristic features of the latter genre: visions of a final judgment, and of cosmic warfare between the forces of good and evil; allegorical beasts and figures set against fantastic landscapes and heavenscapes; numerological clues to the date and order of the events described, which are connected in riddling fashion to actual or historical personages and occurrences: all of this amounting to a grand, final, not to say orgasmic, settling of accounts for everyone and with everyone. Apocalypse has often been described as the ‘child’ of classical Hebrew prophecy – and so it is: the bastard child, the child of woe and of hope endlessly deferred, and of dreams of revenge become so grandiose that the earthly Jerusalem and circumjacent lands could no longer provide a stage big enough for its enactment. Hebrew prophecy had itself been born largely out of defeat and despair; in the apocalyptic writings Yahweh’s great scheme of redemption for Israel became enlarged world-wide, and was mixed up inextricably with astrology, angelology, demonology, and doctrines of the after-life and a last judgment. An ‘enlargement’ of prophecy, I have called these writings: yet I find it impossible to read them without feeling that for the most part they are the product of smaller, pettier, crazier minds than those which had produced the most affecting of the prophetic visions. In the apocalyptic texts the god’s plan for Israel, which the prophets believed history would make splendidly manifest to all, has been reduced to a kind of secret code, shared between the writer and the reader. Meaningless and often repulsive symbols whirl by phantasmagorically. Paranoia and obsession reign virtually unchallenged, except by sudden lurches into bathos: ‘When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.’

Of all the apocalypses, the Revelation to John is obviously the best-known, because of its inclusion in the Biblical canon. (Reading between the lines of some commentators today, one can sense a certain embarrassment about the text; at the same time, it is clear that apocalyptic elements abound in the Gospels and Epistles, and that the development of Christianity would have been inconceivable had not such teachings and traditions been widespread among the Jews of Palestine in Jesus’s day.) It follows, then, that even to those of us who never look at the Bible certain images and phrases from the Apocalypse of John are recognisable in one fashion or another – perhaps as titles of motion pictures if nothing else: the Alpha and the Omega; Babylon, the great mother of harlots; the mark of the beast; the four horsemen; the seven seals; the blood of the Lamb; a new heaven and a new earth. However, the elaborate settings in which these and many other portentous symbols appear, and the various dreamlike transformations they undergo, are much too incoherent (and too tedious) to try to summarise here. No doubt their incoherence is part of their appeal to certain minds. The other day a leaflet was pushed into my hand at a railway station. Quoting lavishly from the more lurid parts of the Revelation, it promised us (on earth) wars, earthquakes and general destruction, and (in hell) eternal torments. The only way we could escape these appalling prospects, it said, was by turning to Jesus. BUT DON’T DELAY, the last line of the pamphlet proclaimed: THIS OFFER IS OPEN FOR A VERY LIMITED PERIOD ONLY.

What Lawrence does is to present his own interpretation of the Revelation, like innumerable other commentators before and since. His version is difficult to summarise – he speaks approvingly at one point of the reader’s mind moving in ‘a curious flitting motion from image to image’ – but essentially it seems to go through three stages. The first is a consideration of the Revelation, and of the sort of Judaism and Christianity associated with it, as a dream or drama of revenge, dictated by the rancour of the underdog; this part of the book owes much to the Nietzsche of The Anti-Christ, though Lawrence can hardly be said to be generous in acknowledging his indebtedness. However, the manner in which he expresses himself on the subject is entirely his own:

it is not the revenge one minds so much as the perpetual self-glorification of these saints and martyrs and their profound impudence. How one loathes them in their ‘new white garments’. How disgusting their priggish rule must be! How vile is their spirit, really, insisting, simply insisting on wiping out the whole universe, bird and blossom, star and river, and above all, everybody except themselves and their precious ‘saved’ brothers. How beastly their new Jerusalem, where the flowers never fade, but stand in everlasting sameness! How terribly bourgeois, to have unfading flowers!

Then, within or beneath this drama, Lawrence, following various other writers, discerns with much more enthusiasm the remains of an old Babylonian or Chaldean star-myth or astrological system: hence the multitude of references to the heavenly bodies in the Revelation, like the one at the very beginning to ‘him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands’. And within and beneath that, once again, Lawrence claims even more enthusiastically to be able to discern a pagan ‘mystery’ or initiation-rite of death and rebirth, of the kind associated with the Eleusinian and Orphic cults. In making the connection between such cults and the Christian doctrines and sacraments, Lawrence was of course following a fairly well-worn path.

No, it is not for the systems which he adumbrates, or even for the manner in which he runs them together, that one most values the book. It could be said, rather, that one of the best things about it is the readiness with which he abandons his own schemes in order to pursue all the personal, political or intellectual hares which his reading of the text has started up within him. Some of his speculations, like his earnest discussion of the ‘seven spheres of consciousness in man’, which have much to do with the spinal column, and which apparently derive from his dabblings in certain Theosophical doctrines, seem just plain dotty. Sometimes, too, he gets bogged down in his own argumentation: this, for example, happens when he tries to explain the relationship between Christianity and political power, and finds himself asserting over and over again that whereas ‘personal’ or ‘aristocratic’ or ‘heroic’ power is splendid and irresistible, the implacable will-to-power of the underdog merely reveals him to be more contemptibly dog-like than ever. Why should this be so? Nietzsche was also quite unable to resolve that conundrum: for the most part, like Lawrence, he simply pretends it does not exist.

Yet everywhere, even in what are apparently the most arcane or confused passages, we come across fascinatingly unexpected observations, or recollections, or turns of thought. Like this:

And I remember, as a child, I used to wonder over the curious sense of self-glory which one felt in the uneducated leaders, the men especially of the Primitive Methodist Chapels. They were not on the whole pious or mealy-mouthed or objectionable, these colliers who spoke heavy dialect and ran the ‘Pentecost’. They were certainly not humble or apologetic. No, they came in from the pit and sat down to their dinners with a bang, and their wives and daughters ran to wait on them, and their sons obeyed them without overmuch resentment ... It was not until many years had gone by, and I had read something of comparative religion and the history of religion, that I realised what a strange book it was that had inspired the colliers on the black Tuesday nights in Pentecost or Beauvale Chapel to such a queer sense of authority and religious cheek. Strange marvellous black nights of the north Midlands, with the gas-light hissing in the chapel, and the roaring of the strong-voiced colliers. Popular religion: a religion of self-glorification and power, forever! and of darkness. No wailing ‘Lead kindly Light’ about it.

Or this, which the present leaders of the State of Israel, faced with the current figures of emigration from their country, might do well to ponder:

The Jews loved roaming, they loved meeting strange peoples, learning from strange cultures, which meant strange religions. The Jews from the very start down to this day have always loved to be with gentiles, to learn gentile ways and wisdom ... So of course in the past he [the Jew] was always having to be whipped back to Jerusalem: as he is today ... The Jewish prophets hated their neighbours so bitterly because the Jewish people were all too prone to like their neighbours overmuch, and merge too easily. Jews on the whole are bored by Jews. Gentiles are much more interesting. It is obvious from the Book of Daniel and from Esther that the Jews had a most thrilling time in Babylonia, in Chaldea, and that they learned all there was to be learned from the Chaldeans. They probably enjoyed Egypt and Babylon, even in captivity, as they now enjoy New York and London, in freedom: perhaps even more. And the splendid thing about the Bible is the wideness of its contact and the bigness of its intelligence and its secret sympathy ... The attraction appears in the Bible in marvellous poetry of cursing and commination and prophecy of doom, as a rule. But under the words of hate, comes the poetry of the lure.

He discusses the differences between symbolism and allegory in what seems to me an enlightening way; he speaks up for the Moffatt translation of the Bible against the Authorised Version; he speculates about the relationship between the concepts of modern physics and certain kinds of religious consciousness (‘imageless, unimaginable’); he contrasts our bodily responses to what is around us with what he sees as the fixities and instrumentalities of abstract thought; he launches a cheerful attack on Socrates, whom he accuses of being ‘simply drunk with the triumph of being able to reason. Drunk!’ He is also capable of remarking, after one of his wilder flights of fancy, ‘Now this may sound nonsense, but that is merely because we are fools,’ or of suddenly admitting: ‘Anyhow, there is too much destroying in the Apocalypse. It ceases to be fun.’

The Revelation, I said earlier, is the last book in the Christian Bible. There is a curious, touching, ironic symbolism in the fact that Lawrence’s commentary upon that book is the last he himself wrote: it was published only after his death. He was a dying man when he produced the lyrical (even rhyming!) passage which brings the book to a close:

I am part of the sun as my eye is part of me. That I am part of the earth my feet know perfectly, and my blood is part of the sea. My soul knows that I am part of the human race ... In my own very self, I am part of my family. There is nothing of me that is alone and absolute except my mind, and we shall find that the mind has no existence by itself, it is only the glitter of the sun on the surface of the waters.

The reference in that passage to the author’s family completes the circuit of the book, by bringing us back to the autobiographical reminiscences with which it opens. It reminds us also of what he says in his introduction to the Carter treatise:

I was brought up on the Bible, and seem to have it in my bones. From early childhood I have been familiar with Apocalyptic language and Apocalyptic image: not because I spent my time reading Revelation, but because I was sent to Sunday School and to Chapel, to Band of Hope and Christian Endeavour, and was always having the Bible read at me or to me. I did not even listen attentively. But language has a power of echoing and re-echoing in my unconscious mind.

Indeed, language did have that power for him. To illustrate the truth of this, I shall not try to dredge up apocalyptic references in Women in Love and The Rainbow: instead I would like to place side-by-side two more quotations – the first from a rejected fragment of Apocalypse; the second from Sons and Lovers, written more than a quarter of a century before.

Even the Jewish form of poetry that they call ‘parallelism’, because the second line re-echoes the first in a parallel image, how curiously satisfying it can be, once one enters into the image-rhythm of it ... There is the perpetual yet unexpected antiphony, like the strong heart-beat followed by the weak.

And now, Paul Morel nursing his mother towards the very end of her long illness:

He stood looking out of the window. The whole country was bleak and pallid under the snow. Then he felt her pulse. There was a strong stroke and a weak one, like a sound and its echo. That was supposed to betoken the end.

Did this image, one wonders, ‘re-echo’ from so far back in Lawrence’s mind, as he struggled to conclude his Apocalypse, because some part of himself was attending to the intermitting beat of his own pulse?