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.

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