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.

Among my own students such sometime touchstones as The Rainbow, Women in Love and Lady Chatterley’s Lover have lost the glamour that they had a quarter of a century ago, when peyote, bell-bottoms, sexual mysticism and something like Lawrentian blood-consciousness were in, and what Lawrence castigated as ‘nerve-brain irony’ was way, way out precisely because it didn’t seem sufficiently ‘far out’. Though undergraduate as well as graduate reading lists still include Sons and Lovers, the book strikes many young readers as a chestnut, maybe even an obstacle on the road to Virginia Woolf, Thomas Pynchon and Alice Walker, while the later novels just look ‘weird’. On the one hand, the author of Women in Love is too damn serious, too damn end-of-the-world to be any fun in a world of MTV; on the other hand, the creator of The Woman who Rode Away and the kitschy tribe of Native Americans into which she rode is too damn racist and too damn sexist to take seriously in an age of bland multiculturalism. To make matters worse, the poet who produced such apparently improvisational and transparent texts as ‘Piano’, ‘Snake’, ‘Bavarian Gentians’ and ‘The Ship of Death’ is so easy to read that he doesn’t give teachers much to teach (where are the allusions? what are the subtexts?), and he certainly doesn’t offer a whole lot for deconstructors to deconstruct.

In this last connection, it’s worth remembering that one of this century’s major battles of the books may have been the largely unspoken skirmish between Lawrence’s neo-romanticism and Eliot’s aggressively buttoned-up quasi-classicism. Before the battle lines were drawn, Lawrence and Eliot were both outsiders in literary London, both voraciously ambitious, both aching with Swinburnean longing, both repelled by the city’s staleness, its walking dead, its mechanised ugliness. Yet the differences between the two were at least as striking as the similarities – and they issued in very different aesthetic strategies.

A scion of the American haute bourgeoisie, Eliot was a neurasthenic but learned entrepreneur, a sort of Dick Whittington destined to become lord mayor of literary London through the judicious deployment of difficult verses and decisive critical dicta. From the first an ‘old possum’, he disguised himself in what Virginia Woolf called a ‘four-piece suit’, while arming himself with a tightly furled umbrella and a suitcase full of arcane allusions. Lawrence was the hero of quite another fairy tale – the kind of quest-romance in which the woodcutter’s (substitute here ‘the miner’s’) youngest son sets out with a crust in his wallet and a fire in his head, seeking a prize he can barely define. And unlike Eliot, he appeared (at least to one onlooker) as ‘a very “everyday young man”, with a small, drooping moustache, carefully brushed hair and heavy clumpy boots’. Although his biographers have made the point that he was very well educated – too well educated, in a sense, to produce the ‘authentic projects’ delineating the ‘unvoiced’ life of the working classes that Ford Madox Ford and others wanted from him – he was hardly the bored sophisticate that Eliot affected to be. Of his own early relationship with Pound, Eliot merely noted in a letter to Conrad Aiken that Pound was ‘rather intelligent as a talker’, though ‘his verse is well-meaning but touchingly incompetent’. By contrast, Lawrence confided enthusiastically to one of his girlfriends that Pound ‘knows W.B. Yeats – all the Swells’, and remarked of Ford’s circle generally: ‘Aren’t the folks kind to me?’

Was it merely class that set these two aspiring artists on courses that were to have such different consequences? In 1909 Ford would certainly have said as much, for at that point, as Brenda Maddox notes in her biography, he considered Lawrence a representative of ‘the completely different race of the English artisan ... a race as sharply divided from the ruling or even the mere white-collar classes as was the Negro from the gentry of Virginia’. That this well-read working-class schoolmaster was so rapidly ‘typecast’ and ‘caricatured’ does not seem likely to have ‘blighted’ his ‘artistic development’, as Maddox has argued. But clearly the reception of Lawrence’s distinctive Modernism and the very nature of that Modernism had origins in the social gulf that separated him not just from Eliot, Ford and even Pound but also from the well-bred ‘Bloomsberries’. Compare the tone of affectionate mockery in which Virginia Woolf wrote of ‘Tom Great Tom’ in his ‘four-piece suit’ with the faint upper-crust sneer that animates her dismissive remark that Lawrence’s late Pansies and Nettles ‘read like the sayings that small boys scribble upon stiles to make housemaids jump and titter’. Or consider the even more scathing, High Church contempt with which, later still, Eliot formulated his posthumous attack on the provenance of Lawrence’s ‘strange gods’: ‘Nothing could have been much drearier (so far as one can judge from his own account) than the vague hymn-singing pietism which seems to have consoled the miseries of Lawrence’s mother, and which does not seem to have provided her with any firm principles by which to scrutinise the conduct of her sons.’

Even less openly snobbish responses to Lawrence, early and late, seem at least in part to have been shaped by a sense that he was more a ‘savage pilgrim’ than an intellectual, a kind of ‘white aboriginal’, a ‘genius but’. Nor did his marriage to a daughter of minor German aristocrats redeem him in the eyes of Anglo-Saxon salonnières, though he himself evidently took the same kind of pleasure in the von Richthofen connection that he felt in his rather sycophantic friendships with Ottoline Morrell and Cynthia Asquith. What was fundamentally most damning, however, was what is still probably the most problematic dimension of the man: his profoundly anti-Wildean commitment to the importance of being earnest in an age of irony, self-consciously stylish order and allusively ambiguous myth.

For Lawrence was undeniably earnest, despite his famous gift for mimicry, his high spirits, his sense of the comic. His Modernism – eventually his anti-Modernism – sought in all seriousness to engage the chaos and pathos of the present without a single concession to the knowing smile of the Bloomsbury drawing-room, the disaffected twitch of a Laforguian eyebrow. True, it was a Modernism that knew how it would be received and dismissed (‘Oh leave off saying I want you to be savages’) yet even so it reiterated a commitment to what the writer called ‘the naivety that breaks the back of sophistication’:

Tell me, is the gentian savage, at the top of its coarse stem?
Oh what in you can answer to this blueness?

Perhaps most naive of all, it was a Modernism that produced a bloom of mystical and mysterious risks ‘at the top of its’ – seemingly – ‘coarse stem’, a Modernism, more specifically, that confronted, transcribed and sought (with varying degrees of success) to analyse the sexual anxieties, class tensions and racial conflicts most contemporaries burlesqued, repressed or suppressed.

Even as he preened himself in his ‘suit of clerical cut’, Eliot was firing off letter after letter dotted with doggerel detailing the sex-capades of ‘King Bolo and his Big Black Kween’, while producing poem after poem whose energies derive not just from the distancing irony but also from the unexamined ambiguity of their author’s feelings towards the social and sexual problems incarnated in the ‘murderous paws’ of ‘Rachel née Rabinovitch’, the ‘pneumatic bliss’ proffered by Grishkin, the dangling arms of ‘Apeneck Sweeney’, and Bleistein’s alarmingly big cigar. Is it even necessary to note the seamless (and of course shocking) candour with which Lawrence addressed just the same issues, in novels, stories, poems, essays, letters? Driven really as well as allegorically around the world by the energy of his need to excavate and analyse the lumpier secrets buried in the West’s cultural unconscious, the author of Sons and Lovers, Women in Love and The Plumed Serpent was often an all too embarrassingly sincere archaeologist of what have since become politically incorrect emotions.

From his proto-Freudian analysis of the fearsome milk of mother love, along with the bitterness of the milk the son might consequently return to the mother, to his disturbing transcription of an extremist meditation on the apocalyptic ‘dissolution’ represented by an African statue of a woman in childbirth, Lawrence cultivated a potentially appalling spiritual nakedness that disdained not just suits of ‘clerical cut’ but any suits at all except those he figuratively as well as literally sewed for himself. (Frieda boasted: ‘he dares to come out in the open and plants his stuff down bald and naked.’) As his allegorical quest-romance drove him from Europe to Asia to Australia to America, Lawrence never minded changing his mind, any more than he minded changing his place. ‘I’ll never go back on my whiteness,’ he declared in a letter just after leaving Ceylon in 1922, but two years later he praised A Passage to India – ‘The day of our white dominance is over, and no new day can come till this of ours has passed into night’ – noting, in a separate letter to Middleton Murry, that Forster’s ‘repudiation of our white bunk is genuine, sincere, and pretty thorough ... King Charles must have his head off. Homage to the headsman.’

It’s too often the case that the dark burnings of the most impassioned artist are rewarded primarily by the pale fire of scholarship, and Lawrence’s weighty, three-volume treatment by the Cambridge biographers proves him no exception to this rule. While the subject-matter of David Ellis’s massive and meticulously researched D.H. Lawrence: Dying Game 1922-30 is enthralling, the final volume in this ambitious series often reads as though it had been produced by Charles Kinbote, the haplessly sententious narrator of Nabokov’s Pale Fire. These are of course Lawrence’s most ferocious ‘wander years’, when what started out as a fairy-tale quest for a ‘Rananim’ that would constitute a living alternative to the ‘long, ash-gray coffin of England’ turned into an increasingly frantic and after a while feverish hunt through Australia, New Mexico, Mexico, Italy and France for what Sylvia Plath called ‘a country as far away as health’. Ellis has scrupulously accumulated a host of fascinating details illuminating every facet of the writer’s life, from his eating (and cooking) habits to his writing practices, from his infamous quarrels with Frieda to the symptoms signalling the onset of his final struggle with tuberculosis, but he never manages to shape what comes to seem like sheer data into a vivid portrait.

To be sure, the raw material Ellis has to work with is often so electrifyingly interesting that his book is a good read, at times even hard to put down. But I often found myself compelled to keep turning the pages despite the authorial comments – which are often intrusive, in the pompously hectoring mode of Kinbote. Of Lawrence’s literary advice to his sometime ‘collaborator’ Mollie Skinner, for instance (‘When you’ve done 80,000 words, throw down your pen’), the biographer feels it necessary to observe that ‘its spirit, is, mutatis mutandis, like that of the advice given by thousands of supervisors to research students with a “writing block”.’ About Mabel Dodge Luhan, he rather stuffily (and ungrammatically) tells us: ‘Warm and generous, no one would ever have accused her of the emotional perversions which often accompany the self-sacrificing temperament.’ And about Witter Bynner’s companion, Willard ‘Spud’ Johnson, he writes so snidely as to appear homophobic: Johnson’s ‘title’ of secretary to Bynner, he assures us at one point, ‘was not merely honorific’, adding later that Mabel wanted to make Spud ‘her secretary (in which case the word would no longer need its inverted commas)’.

But it is on the vexed and vexing issue of Dorothy Brett’s insistence that she and Lawrence got into bed together on at least two occasions that Ellis’s ‘commentary’ descends to parody. Brett declared in a late memoir that Lawrence had told her their sexual efforts were ‘no good’ because ‘Your pubes are wrong’. But could Brett have been telling the truth, Ellis wonders, and if she was, what are, were, or might have been meant by ‘pubes’? And here he launches into his most Nabokovian biographical and philological meditation:

There are of course problems with Brett’s second account of what happened in Ravallo. If it is true, then the first contained a deliberate falsehood which could make some people wonder what the rest of her testimony is worth. She was moreover devoted to Lawrence and may in her last years have been indulging in an old woman’s fantasy, or profiting to the end from the attention which her friendship with him had brought. Even if we could be certain that what she did remember him saying was ‘pubes’ and not, as in several subsequent accounts, ‘boobs’ (a slang expression for breasts which only became current after World War Two), that word is almost equally bizarre and one which one never finds Lawrence using elsewhere. In addition to these particular objections, there is a general rule that a memoir will be more trustworthy the nearer its composition is to the events described.

Nor is this all. ‘The second account has a narrative coherence which the first lacks,’ Ellis confides, and, by way of explanation: ‘it may be that Lawrence did not refer to Brett’s “pubes” ... Yet that there was some such misfortune seems reasonably certain.’

What, after all, can a biographer do if he must confront what Ellis elsewhere laments as ‘the absence of that utopian state called “full documentation” ’? Ellis seems to be more haunted by the theory of the genre in which he works than by the ghost of the impassioned Lawrence (he has in fact edited a collection of essays on biography), and so he never offers a satisfactorily dramatic answer to this question, although he is clearly thoughtful, learned and, if anything, too scrupulous in his examination of Lawrentian evidence. But perhaps any Kinbote-ish biographer more absorbed in the theory of biography than in the drama of an extraordinary life ought to be required to read at least a stanza of Yeats’s succinctly scornful ‘The Scholars’:

All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbour knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?

Philological shufflings and coughings in ink will not go far towards capturing the distinctive, even allegorical power of the resonant, anti-Modernist quest-romance about which Lawrence himself so beautifully (and apparently so casually) wrote when in a book review he noted that ‘we travel, perhaps, with a secret and absurd hope of setting foot on the Hesperides, of running our boat up a little creek and landing in the Garden of Eden.’ And what in a self-reflexively Post-Modern biographer can answer to the ‘blueness’ of DHL’s last and longest journey, ‘down the darker and darker stairs’ of myth to the secret, sacred place ‘where darkness is awake upon the dark’ and a simple cluster of Bavarian gentians takes on the ‘darkness invisible’ of ‘Persephone herself’, enfolded ‘in the deeper dark/of the arms Plutonic, and pierced with the passion of dense gloom’?