Leave off saying I want you to be savages

Sandra Gilbert

  • D.H. Lawrence: Dying Game 1922-30 by David Ellis
    Cambridge, 814 pp, £25.00, January 1998, ISBN 0 521 25421 3

Visiting Perth in May 1922, D.H. Lawrence struck one May Gawlor, who met him at a literary picnic, as a cross between ‘a reddish bearded able-bodied seaman and a handyman at the backdoor’, so that she wondered ‘how this rather shabby, slightly coarse, far from spruce and tidy little man could possibly have caused such a flutter, apart from his books’. Yet he did cause rather more than a flutter. Quite apart from his remarkable range of novels, poems, letters, plays, travel writings and literary/philosophical ‘pollyanalytics’, most by now the fodder for countless critical treatises, and even apart from his still oddly scandalous paintings at which, David Ellis reports, 13,000 visitors to London’s Warren Gallery gawked in the early summer of 1929, he was a figure of extraordinary fascination, even during his lifetime. Paradoxically, then, to contemplate works by the author of that famous critical maxim ‘Never trust the artist. Trust the tale’ is more often than not to marvel at the ‘life-rapidity’ – another Lawrentian phrase – of the vehement ‘reddish bearded ... rather shabby’ artist himself. Indeed, one might say of Lawrence, as Keats said of Shakespeare, that he ‘led a life of Allegory. His works are the comments on it.’

To the cultural historian, Lawrence’s almost allegorical charisma is of special interest because both his popular and his critical reputation have fluctuated so dramatically since his death. To be sure, the embattled author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is not alone among High Modernists in having been labelled a proto-fascist reactionary, a racist, a misogynist, an élitist and (no doubt in a range of other formulations I’m not remembering at the moment) a paradigmatic Bad Boy. And that Lawrence was at one time or another, in one way or another, most of these things, besides being in some sense a wife-batterer, is not irrelevant to any discussion of what may perhaps be a long-term decline in his literary standing. Yet as the appearance of four new biographical volumes in the last decade attests, he continues to enthral readers and writers alike. Perhaps it is precisely his intellectual as well as political incorrectness that intrigues us; perhaps – as scholars of his life along with his art – we are bemused, even bewitched, by the ways he doesn’t fit into our current systems of thought.

Lawrence is the poet of the present in what has become a kind of cultural afterwards, an era of Post-Modernity. He is the prophet of what used to be called ‘primitivism’ in an age when the very concept of the ‘primitive’ has been castigated as Eurocentric and chauvinistic. He is the priest of spontaneity in an era of irony and parody, the sage of sacred sex in Playboy country. He is the acolyte of intuition, of blood-wisdom, of mystical ‘lapsings’ from consciousness – the impassioned enemy of mechanised rationality – in a thought-tormented, computerised, hypertextual, theory-driven fin de siècle. And most troublesome of all, he is the paradigm of authorial energy, the proponent of authorial authority, in an age when that mystical being once known as ‘the author’ has sickened, failed, faded, been pronounced dead – and been buried with considerable deconstructive fanfare.

Of course, though many of his views now seem eccentric, Lawrence was in notable ways a creature of his time. His ‘pollyanalytics’ were profoundly influenced by avant-garde Austro-German thinkers (from Nietzsche to Freud to Otto Gross) when he was transfigured by the intellectual as well as sexual conflagration of his first meeting with Frieda von Richthofen Weekley. At that moment, in the spring of 1911, young Bert Lawrence – an exceptionally talented, neo-romantic, vaguely Swinburnean, vaguely Hardyesque schoolteacher-poet-novelist – became the intense and idiosyncratic ‘Lorenzo’ who wrote Women in Love and was in many ways a real-life double of Rupert Birkin, the novel’s sometimes priggishly prophetic ‘salvator mundi’. And if, as Lorenzo/Birkin, a ‘priest of love’, the erstwhile schoolmaster preached a doctrine drawn from bohemian Schwabing as mediated by the free-thinking, free-love-loving Frieda, the apparently spontaneous and improvisational style of ‘continual, slightly modified repetition’ in which he propounded his creed had affinities not only with German Expressionism, but with the pulsing incantations of Walt Whitman’s vers libre, mediated by (among many English Whitmanites) that other post-Swinburnean priest of love, Edward Carpenter.

Nevertheless, though Lawrence’s aesthetic style and intellectual substance were rooted in fertile ground that nurtured distinctively modern ways of seeing and modes of being, his was not, by and large, the road taken by English-language Modernism, as we now understand that intellectual movement. In a sense, his life of Allegory is a romance of anti-Modernism, or at the least of another modernism, a modernism that went underground in the Pound/Eliot era and would not make a significant – and significantly brief – reappearance until the American Sixties. Even now, in a decade marked by wearily ironic Post- (or even post-Post-) Modernism and righteous censoriousness, Lawrence’s impulsive, spätromantische -ism might be seen as a modernism that dare not speak its name.

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