Radical Egoism

Stuart Hampshire

These are the years of early fame after Sons and Lovers, and of the publication of The Rainbow and its banning, and of Lawrence’s violent and despairing reactions to the war. He was already a fully recognised writer, a probable genius, and his more intimate correspondents include Cynthia Asquith, Ottoline Morrell, Bertrand Russell, Edward Marsh, Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield, Philip Heseltine, Mark Gertler. The letters to Russell tell a particularly vivid story. Lawrence harassed Russell relentlessly and at great length, repetitiously and in a wilfully unpleasant tone. He kept on banging away at Russell’s vaunted rationality, his putative concern with peace, his humanitarian sentiments. ‘What you want is to jab and strike, like the soldier with the bayonet, only you are sublimated into words... It is not the hatred of falsehood which inspires you. It is the hatred of people, of flesh and blood.’ Russell endured more, and for a longer time, than his autobiography suggested. His forbearance was astonishing, and it must be interpreted as coming from the respect that Russell believed to be owed to genius. He must have found it tiresome to be told in letter after letter that his pacifism was a cloak for his natural aggressiveness, and that his concern for humanity disguised a cold detachment: particularly tiresome, because the accusations probably had some measure of truth, a nagging plausibility, at least. It is not surprising that he sought a respite and that the friendship finally foundered.

The horrors of the Great War, and the mere fact of its occurrence, unbalanced Lawrence’s mind. He could not come to terms with it. He could not fit it into any idea of history, or of human nature, which he possessed. In these letters he retreats into hatred of mankind, and cultivated indifference to its suffering, and into a proclaimed desire to live in isolation with a few friends in a perfect community. He is often tedious when ranting about the new world which would arise from the revealed corruption of the old. The rhythms of his sentences and paragraphs are pseudo-Biblical, and here, in Cambridge’s admirable cold print, they convey very little. There are evident echoes of Nietzsche, but in letters prophecy fades away into embarrassment. For much of the time Lawrence was ill, or on the verge of illness, and he knew that he swung between exaltation and despair in part because of physical ups and downs. Yet he continued to write poetry and several kinds of prose – a new novel, short stories, travel essays, his so-called philosophy – with extraordinary fluency. He complains about almost everything except his writing. He had no assured income, and he was often near to having no money at all for day-to-day living. Borrowing houses from friends, he and Frieda were usually on the move. Of himself, he wrote: ‘I find it impossible to sit still in one place.’

Because of the war, he was cut off from his countrymen and from his natural public; he suddenly found himself isolated and on the sidelines: and this at a crucial time in the full unfolding of his genius as novelist and storyteller. The war was relevant to his original vision only as proof that European civilisation was dissolving in catastrophe and that a new human order must be brought into being. Of the unpublished manuscript presenting the philosophy which is also presented in many of these letters, Cecil Gray wrote that it was ‘Lawrence at his very worst: a bombastic, pseudo-mystical, psycho-philosophical treatise dealing largely with homosexuality’. According to Ottoline Morrell, ‘it was a gospel of hate and violent individuality. He attacks the will, love and sympathy. Indeed the only thing that he doesn’t revile and condemn is love between men and women.’ So much is apparent in the letters of these war years. But the positive ideas that went into the writing of Women in Love are not to be found, in any realised form, in the letters. This is the familiar trick of confessions and literary memoirs and autobiographies, and also of collected letters: they tell you everything about the author except the essential and central thing – his work and the energy and care that went into its execution. In spite of continuing illness, and the depression that came with it, he protected his power to write against every disadvantage, and in the letters one hears only of the disadvantages and desperation. It may be useful to disentangle from within the letters the positive ideas that lie behind the ranting, and that also lie behind the still vivid fiction of this period, sometimes interrupting and often spoiling the longer fiction, but also constituting part of its inspiration.

In bald summary, the following propositions compose the so-called ‘philosophy’ revealed in the letters of this period. First, men and women in modern societies will end by destroying their own civilisations, unless they can gain access to their own unconscious, pre-social thoughts and desires, and unless they can relax or abandon their conscious and rational ambitions and the competitive exercise of the Will. Acting contrary to their true nature, which has been obscured both by Christianity and by rational utilitarianism, they are now slaves ready for a slave revolt, except that they are temporarily deceived by patriotism. Secondly, the only way out of this trap involves a total rejection of organised society and of collective action of any kind. A new, radical and uncalculating egoism is needed, which requires each of us, separately, to listen to the uncharted promptings of our own nature and to be deaf to all suggestions from outside. Collective political action only reinforces the trap, and a small and isolated community of enlightened egoists is now the only tolerable social form. Thirdly, the error of Christianity and of post Christian humanism is to place at the centre of the imagined universe the thinking and self-conscious animal, this little creature with his Renaissance strut and hard shell of intellectual pride, which shuts him off from immediate responses to the natural order. We need in our imagination to travel far back in time and to reconstruct images of the rituals and symbols of earlier ages. The history that we learn is too short and too shallow, and it is biased towards our proud and vapid enlightenment. Fourthly, the path that leads below consciousness and convention to true nature, and to the unconscious mind, is supported by honest and direct sexual feeling between men and women. This feeling will be uneven, sometimes violent, not without hostility, and sustained with great difficulty: but it is the only means of escape from the trap of false rationality and futile beneficence.

In these letters Lawrence often tells his correspondent just ‘to be’ rather than to act with some high-minded end in view. He or she must cultivate some of the virtues, real or imaginary, of the aristocracy – carelessness, independence, self-confidence, and the absence of sympathy and of the desire to please: better to follow any passionate whim than to be constrained by strivings of the will. It is notorious that these doctrines are sometimes directly and tediously preached in the novels and stories, sometimes put into the dialogue. But they also contribute powerfully to the themes and forms of the stories and novels of this period, and particularly to The Rainbow and Women in Love. Particularly vivid and valuable is the third proposition in its effects, when Lawrence suggests the longer background of early history and of primitive living and its continuity with the natural order, now violated by ideals of mastery over nature and of an aggressive understanding, which is finally a form of stupidity, because it does not recognise how much is unknown and will remain unknown. Because the energy of fiction at any time comes from the rejection of abstract thought in favour of impressions concretely conveyed, Lawrence’s beliefs are happily absorbed and consumed in the best of his fiction: but they look rather old and worn and threadbare in a letter. He appears here principally as one among the progeny of the New Thought of the Nineties, Darwinian and Nietzschean, alongside Ibsen and so many others, calling for a revised egoism and, specifically, for a revised ideal of womanhood, as man’s equal and opposite and combative complement. How long ago all this happened is emphasised by an extraordinary and delightful letter about Swinburne:

I lie in bed and read, and he moves me very deeply. The pure realisation in him is something to reverence: he is very like Shelley, as our greatest poet. He is the last fiery spirit among us. There was more powerful rushing flame in him than in all the heroes rolled together. One day I shall buy all his books.

Swinburne is placed on a pedestal mainly because he had a part in the campaign against Victorian morals and manners which Lawrence was continuing. In the early story ‘The Trespasser’ the style is often unashamedly Swinburnean. There are very long and lush descriptions of sunset and sea, of the beauties of wind and cloud and sky, and the effect, pursued and attained, is one of rapture in love. It is a strong story, but drawn out and weighed down by fine writing and natural description. The Ninetyish manner was to be refined away as the iron entered his soul during the Great War, and the process can be followed in this second volume of the letters.