Living with Armageddon

Dudley Young

  • The World of Lawrence: A Passionate Appreciation by Henry Miller
    Calder, 272 pp, £14.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 7145 3866 3

This year, despite the downward drift in almost every sphere, we are celebrating the 300th birthday of the still dearly beloved Handel in the midst of an astonishing revival of English musicality. Thanks be to Messrs Hogwood, Pinnock, Gardiner, the ghost of Munrow, and all their friends, for what is truly a renaissance of baroque music.

On the other hand, this year also marks the 100th birthday of D.H. Lawrence, and his party already seems to be a distinctly ill-attended affair: Lawrentians are now so thin on the ground that this time-warped offering by Henry Miller (written in the Thirties) may be the only significant one to show up. Such a desertion becomes the more strange when one remembers that up until quite recently one didn’t have to be a Leavisite to believe that Lawrence was perhaps the major English voice of this century.

A partial explanation of this desertion is that whereas previous decades had the leisure to entertain his oracle in the traditional way (‘Unless ye repent ... ’), we now live with such imminent apocalyptic fact that we sense no time to repent, and so we switch off and listen to Handel.

Fiddling while Rome burns? Certainly. But it is not as simple as that. Anyone who thinks these fiddlers are simply mimic men, part of the nostalgia industry, should listen again, for it’s all there, all one could ask for – pleasure, passion, grace, discipline, intelligence; and such stuff cannot be faked. What’s more, attending to it actually does restore the soul, even as it invites us to ignore our present poverty: evidence, perhaps, that under certain conditions anachronism works, and not just for Young Fogeys. Puzzling matters here: but the emergence of these musicians in an otherwise extremely dry season does at least suggest that living with Armageddon is a complex business, which rightly inclines one to resist the corrosive simplicities in the voice of Puritan iconoclasts such as Lawrence, the bullying exclusiveness of ‘I am the way ... ’

Does the iconoclast smash the icons in order to see the gods clearly or because the gods mustn’t be seen? This was always a good question to ask, and in our time it bears upon the apocalypse we attend. The literal meaning of this word in Greek is ‘an uncovering’, and it may still be true that one cannot look upon the gods uncovered in apocalyptic vision and return intact: it may be better to turn aside and sing them a song.

Lawrence, in whose pantheon reticence was never highly placed, insists that we stare. Miller, whose instincts in theological matters are often remarkably fine (nothing like the lout he offers us in his fiction) is not sure; and his desperate search for an answer to this question lies at the heart of this messy, intoxicated and rather wonderful book. Obsessed with Lawrence in the Thirties, Miller wrestled furiously with his demon for at least a year (after completing Tropic of Cancer), went on worrying the manuscript for another six or seven, and then abandoned it, exhuming it finally with some reluctance for American publication only in 1979, when he was nearly dead.

What was worrying him in the Thirties was the possibility that Lawrence’s ghost was commanding him to go and do likewise: go, that is, into the temple, smash what’s left of the idols, call down the apocalyptic fires, and hasten the end, that life may, perhaps, begin again. When we hear this sort of talk, we tend to reach for the file marked ‘paranoid-schizophrenic’ and call for a doctor: but when we hear Lawrence doing it we often call him a genius. The line which separates psychosis from genius is very thin (Lawrence can cross it in the course of a sentence): it is also very broad, as broad as any we have, the distance which separates the very best from the very worst. Such paradoxical things are both dangerous and unthinkable; and when we draw near to them, we do well to stand a little way off, and speak quietly of the miraculous.

Miller draws nearer than most, and strangely enough, this big-boned Yankee Virgil guides us sure-footedly through the harrowing transformations, to see Lawrence conjuring with the quick and the dead, turning one into the other and back again. We see how his profound love of life grew out of and was inseparable from profound hatreds – ignoble hatreds, moreover, rooted in a body that was fearful, misshapen, treacherous and mean. Analogously, we see how his preternatural ability to sympathise and commune with all forms of life was inseparable from a quite crippling degree of isolation and alienation from his fellow man. And again, how his still unrivalled perception of our culture’s death wish, as it flowered in the Great War, was drawn from the pestilence in his own heart. Miller makes frequent comparisons with Nietzsche and with Jesus.

Big stuff, as Maurice Bowra used to say – troubled and troubling. How can we trust a man like Lawrence as he flickers from life to death, from saviour to devil? How can we trust ourselves to know the difference? Particularly as he comes not with concepts for our well-defended brains but with images to trouble our deepest desires. What may be most bewildering is that in the midst of his daemonic subtleties one finds the crude confusion all religious apocalyptics must share with political revolutionaries: given the perception of terminal corruption in a culture, the commitment to a new order involves hastening the end of the old, which inevitably means willing the death of some innocent life. Only gods can do this with impunity: for a man to call his willing of such slaughter ‘a sacrificial offering’ is a violation of the religious impulse (and its history) so grotesque that only a deracinated intellectual could fail to be appalled by it. Lawrence understood this both profoundly and not at all. No wonder we abuse him so!

To all these dangers attending the expression of apocalyptic energies, so visible in Lawrence, a further one has recently been added, or at least clarified. Hope for rebirth has traditionally been the justification or at least the redeeming virtue of apocalyptic curses pronounced upon corrupt cultures. In the present context of nuclear war, however, such redemptive hope becomes transmogrified in some minds into the belief that such war can be survived, and to hell with nuclear winter. If it’s survivable, it’s thinkable, if thinkable, justifiable in the end, holy war one more time. Such mania, which used to be confined to the lunatic fringes of fundamentalist America, has now moved to Washington, where the idea of survivable Armageddon has shaped Pentagon thinking for some years. The diffusion of such madness through the culture at large is also well under way: American intellectuals propose space colonies to keep the race alive, and in England Doris Lessing also seems to have gone galactic, or at least inter-planetary. The Home Office, for its part, still promises survival for the homely. In view of all this, one is tempted to proscribe any further dealings with one’s apocalyptic self, for fear of giving comfort to the enemy. But it won’t do: that self is in all of us, for good and for ill, and if repressed will only the sooner start infecting our human intercourse. Lawrence, though pre-nuclear, still offers better access than most to both the good and the ill, and the present degradation of these energies challenges us not to close his books but to read them with more care.

Back to Miller in the Thirties. When he began this book he envisaged a quick bout with the English champ – five rounds should do the job. But he soon changed his mind: having come to scoff at the divine delusions of a puny Englishman, he remained to pray at the shrine of ‘the orphic saviour type’ which cultures throw off in their decline: Jesus for Rome, Nietzsche and Lawrence for us. The crucial test for such figures is in the accuracy with which they direct their hatred upon a culture’s diseased tissue, saving their love for adjacent areas of healthiness. Lawrence’s performance as ‘saviour type’ is seen to be not consistently good, but he passes in the end, some mitigation for his inaccuracies being found in the holocaustal nature of the conclusion we are preparing for ourselves.

One senses, sub-textually, Miller’s relief at this verdict: since, miraculously, Lawrence has done it, I don’t have to, which is lucky, as I have neither sufficient talent, nor craziness, nor care, to take it on with much chance of success. I am, after all, just your Brooklyn boy, diabolical drop-out scrounging around in the surrealist sewers of Paris, clown by nature: clown-wolf rather, as I hate America, all polities and institutions, and my lips are almost unable to say the word ‘we’ Call me Ishmael (once again).

And away he went, Lawrence’s successor, clowning fiercely down the road to Big Sur, where mellowness finally found him with some combination of oriental indifference and new-fangled American narcissism. What freed him from Lawrence was the perception that the saviour type must believe that his people can be saved or else he will simply go mad: there will be no one at the foot of the cross to let him down when his story is told. Estranged from the saving love, his rage will become all-consuming, transfixing him to the cross of paranoid-schizophrenia, leaving him unable to die a human death, neither reunited with the Father nor buried in the Mother. Lawrence came close to this in the war, when his hatred for England was nearly absolute: but as ‘The Escaped Cock’ wonderfully suggests, the saviour fit seemed to be passing at the end, delivering him up for burial.

It was a near thing, as Miller says: and he knows that such nearness simply disqualifies him for the role, not only because his Ishmael feels nothing but contempt for America and a deep distrust of all collectivities, but also because in the depressed Thirties the party in Paris was clearly over. Too late, says Miller, to redeem the culture: and redeemers (whether religious or political) who get their timing wrong are consumed by the disease they would cure.

If it is too late for redemption, meaningful politics are impossible, and we are abandoned to apocalypse. Lawrence was half-persuaded of this himself, and was never certain whether his American pilgrimage was the search for a space in which to re-colonise the new world or to bury such appalling delusions for ever. It was Miller’s task to end the ambivalence, reverently retire the heroic saviour and deliver us up to anarchic comedy inside the whale: ‘Don’t change the world – change worlds.’ It was for this that Orwell singled him out in the Thirties as ‘the only imaginative prose writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past’.

Anarchic comedy inside the whale is not as easy as it may sound, as Miller knew better than anyone. The problem is what to do with one’s rage: rage against Father’s political impotence, Mother’s barren womb, the loss of time future, and soon enough time past, which effectively dissolves time present. The abolition of meaningful politics makes the rage unrepresentable, unnameable, and so it may be denied, repressed, and changed into the nihilist poison which seeps unmonitored into the psychopathology of everyday life and the art which should inform it. Good lord, it’s enough to make one want to recall the raging saviour, however perilous his magic!

The two other anti-whale strategies on offer in the Thirties came from Proust and Joyce, both proposing ‘escape from the nightmare of history’ through its imaginative ingestion: womb-tomb oblivion as whale substitute. Miller’s grasp of these complex matters is quite astonishing. He knows that the Proustian path is already fading, time past indeed: Joyce, on the other hand, offers a seductive nihilism masquerading as new life, a version of necrophilia which will soon bury the likes of Lawrence and Miller. Such prescience on Miller’s part is worth attention:

Joyce, who employs a dead language, is, by the irony of things, being hailed as a life-bringer. This remarkable man, whose activity can be likened only to that of a powerful, unisolated microbe, has done more than any man of our time to hasten the process of dissolution. The astounding luxuriance of his language is not a sign of new life, not the exuberance of vitality, but rather the manifestation of a cancer which is ravaging our souls. He proliferates with such virulence that the body of our literature offers not a single point of resistance. There is not even the sign of an antitoxin making its appearance.

Like all the intelligent spirits of his time, Joyce knew that the way forward was down, down to the forgotten fragments of mythic memory, the original springs of human narrative; and yet, as Miller sees, such descent is dangerous: ‘So much has been said about the revival of a mantic personality, about a possible renascence of art through tapping the unconscious leaven of the mind – in all of which there is a ring of truth were it not also unfortunately the death knell which is sounding.’ For archaeologists of the unconscious the danger is twofold: first is the temptation to stay down there, paddling about in pools of verbal narcissism. The second danger, more important, is the temptation to shine the torch of science on this dark stuff instead of reverently planting it in new soil: to know it rather than be known through it.

When Freud says, ‘Where id was, there let ego be,’ can we not hear the scientific rage for mastery alongside the humane search for life more abundant? In Joyce’s case, what began as the heroic attempt ‘to forge the uncreated conscience of my race’ ends in mass interment, the king and his court being buried alive. What is his obsession with Dublin detail, those endless lists, if not the scientist’s urge to classify exhaustively, now grown monstrous and unhinged? At least he had the grace to unhinge it.

Miller finds in Joyce ‘the scholar’s hatred’ of humanity, ‘the neurotic’s fear of entering the living world’, and we scholars would do well to ponder this, as we are even now in the midst of re-enacting what one might call the Joycean praxis. I am referring to the question of structuralism.

When Lévi-Strauss set out to crack the binary codes of the primitive mind, his scientific urge to classify was equalled by a desire to learn civility of the savage, that we in the West might begin to repair our insane relations with the cosmos. A re-statement, one might say, of the 20th-century theme, and it certainly inspired my generation in the Sixties. And yet, by degrees his great enterprise was sidetracked: despairing rage at the systematic degradation of aboriginal peoples as well as the difficulties of living with his own impossibly large intelligence come to mind as partial explanations. In any case, by the time we get to the major trilogy Mallarmé has more or less got him, and it reads like a symboliste poem.

Since then, worse and worse. The search for primitive wisdom recedes before the narcissistic ghosts of grammatology, and the interest in binary codes is no longer informed by the desire to repair our own clouded narrative but to escape narrative altogether. An utterly abstracted Marxism seems to be floating along for the ride (at least in European quarters). It is the story of political despair, the desire to escape the nightmare of history once again turning into ‘the neurotic’s fear of entering the living world’.

If such escape is not to be neurotic, its oriental outline must be admitted. To say that all narrative energies are oppressive, instinct with illusion and suffering, is certainly true, but it is only the latest way of referring to what the ancients called ‘mortality’ or ‘original sin’. The desire to minimise and even escape such suffering is nothing new: the Buddhists were working on it while we Nordic brutes were still in the trees. What is new, and totally unacceptable, is the idea that such suffering throughout history has been nothing but the narrative plotting of tyrannical fathers which we are finally clever enough to deconstruct. The clinical word for such delusion is paranoia.

What prevents the exceedingly clever Derrida and his grammatological friends from recognising this is not just their reluctance to admit their political despair, but a more disabling reluctance to admit that their beautiful minds are stuck in quite treacherous bodies, and that this has always been the human problem. Such reluctance has, since Descartes, been something of a French speciality, but the schizoid condition is now endemic in the West.

Which is where Lawrence and Miller come back in, of perennial importance. ‘Be brave in your body,’ says Lawrence, superbly, to one of his characters: bravery is properly located in the body because that is where death provokes our fear; and any attempt to engage with evil (whether it be called pollution, sin, maya, or the apocalyptic whale of occidental technology) is bound to fall at the first fence if it forgets these central simplicities. Properly reminded of this, the structuralist enterprise could still be brought back on course, divided perhaps into neo-primitive artist-politicos, on the one hand, and neo-Buddhist contemplatives, on the other: Lawrence versus Miller, West versus East, regenerate history versus the glass-bead game, binary fields for ever!

What is not of perennial importance in Lawrence and Miller is the sex business. Time and again while seeking the sacred they manage only to be obscene; and it mars most of their fiction. The simple answer to this is ‘Let it go.’ Miller recognises not only that Lawrence’s novels are frequently ill-written, but also that the sex business is something of an ideological tool: apropos of Lady Chatterley he says: ‘Since there is no other way of making clear his message he does the crude and obvious thing, he performs a miracle for the crowd – he gives us a genital banquet.’ Miller knows even better than Lawrence that every saviour needs his cheap tricks. Moreover, those readers who still think of Miller himself as simply a dumb sexist Yank, pioneer of the fathomless vagina, should consider this: ‘Man’s wonderful world of moralities and religions, of codes of honor, of law and justice, of art, has been erected at woman’s expense, in deep defiance of her, in a constant, painful effort to keep alive the illusion of his necessity in the scheme of things, which woman, without saying a word, silently and by her mere presence, by her love even, negates.’ Written in the Thirties, this still sounds pretty good, if a touch worshipful.

What must above all be resisted is the widespread tendency nowadays (much abetted by loony feminism) to dismiss these men on the grounds of their sexual clowning. To do so is a waste and an evasion of their actual challenge, for, as I have tried to suggest, at their best they provoke our most serious resistances. As partial embodiments of ‘the orphic saviour type’ (one major, one minor) they call forth our fearful execrations, thereby offering us a nourishing scapegoat meal if we can bring ourselves to eat it properly. As Miller says, ‘he shames one, Lawrence’: so he does: so they both still do.

Enough of this: have you heard Hogwood’s incredible Messiah? I was listening to it on the train the other day, kindness of Sony Walkman. If Kirkby had sung first soprano, I reckon the tempi would, at several points, be ...