Anti-Humanism

Terry Eagleton

  • D.H. Lawrence and ‘Difference’: Post-Coloniality and the Poetry of the Present by Amit Chaudhuri
    Oxford, 226 pp, £20.00, June 2003, ISBN 0 19 926052 4

One of the most tenacious of all academic myths is that literary theorists don’t go in for close reading. Whereas non-theoretical critics are faithful to the words on the page, theorists see only what their pet doctrines allow them to see. Like the belief that Edmund Burke was a reactionary or that an extraordinary number of male Australians are called Bruce, this is now such a received idea that it seems almost indelicate to point out that it is completely false. In fact, almost all of the best-known literary theorists engage in close reading: witness Roman Jakobson on Baudelaire, Roland Barthes on Balzac, Fredric Jameson on Conrad, Julia Kristeva on Mallarmé, Edward Said on Jane Austen, Paul de Man on Proust, Gilles Deleuze on Kafka, Gérard Genette on Flaubert, Hélène Cixous on Joyce, Harold Bloom on Wallace Stevens, J. Hillis Miller on Henry James. Some theorists are slapdash readers, but so are some non-theoretical critics. Derrida is so perversely myopic a reader, doggedly pursuing the finest flickers of meaning across a page, that he exasperates some of his opponents with his supersubtlety, not his airy generality.

This suggests one serious flaw in the universally acclaimed doctrine of close reading. Can’t you be too close to the text, as well as too distant from it? Doesn’t it disappear like a Rembrandt if you squash your nose against it, dissolving into streaks and blurs? And why don’t the ‘practical’ critics mention this deficiency? On the whole, however, most major literary theorists have heeded Jameson’s admonition in Marxism and Form that no theory of the work is likely to be worth much if it does not ‘come to terms with the shape of the sentences’. It is just that the antagonists of literary theory need their Aunt Sallies, rather as some Ulster Unionists need to believe that nightclubs in the Irish Republic are packed with young people saying the rosary. It is true that a good many literary theorists read as though their work was composed by a computer as well as on one. Just as some doctors are always sick, so some critics can’t write. But it is too rarely pointed out that some of the most distinguished names in the field – Barthes, Adorno, Foucault, Jameson, Geoffrey Hartman – are remarkably fine stylists, more so than the majority of non-theoretical critics.

Writers do not on the whole take kindly to theorists, rather as shamans do not always look with favour on anthropologists. A lot of poets and novelists are natural-born romantics about their own art, if sometimes about little else. Even the grittiest realist can turn out to be a closet transcendentalist when it comes to his or her own psyche; and writers like that are affronted by the claim that the fruits of their inspiration can be rationally analysed. They feel about this rather as Samson and Delilah might have felt about a Freudian account of their relationship. Yet love can indeed be rationally investigated, even if it cannot be reduced to reason. Unless you can give some coherent account, one in principle intelligible to others, of what you find lovable about someone, it is hard to see how you can describe what you are feeling as love. Love finally goes beyond reason – someone else may see what you see in your partner while not being in the least in love with him or her – but it is not antithetical to reason, as writers afraid of being robbed of their brooding inwardness by some bloodless theorist sometimes believe of their art.

Theorists, so the theory goes, are sad, tight-arsed, Apollonian, whereas writers are red-blooded, touchy-feely, Dionysian. A male theorist in a roomful of male poets is usually made to feel, spiritually speaking, that he is decked out in spangled tights and a tutu. Like a liberal among radicals or a moral philosopher in a brothel, he finds that his manhood is perpetually in question. Some feminists, on the other hand, regard theory itself as ‘male’ – as a matter of academic boys anxiously comparing the length of their polysyllables. Besides, writers are no keener than any other guild to have their mysteries laid bare. In this sense, the theorist who explains in phonological detail why ‘A terrible beauty is born’ is better than ‘A hideous beauty is born’ is like the renegade Magic Circle member who reveals that there are two women hidden inside the box about to be sawn in half.

Relations between the two camps have not always been so strained. In periods of revolutionary turmoil, theorists have sometimes redefined themselves as technical consultants to cultural practitioners. Osip Brik, a Formalist critic, played this role for Mayakovsky, as Walter Benjamin did for Brecht. The point about revolutions is that they get left-wing critics out of the house. The critic runs the workshop in which various poetic devices are tested and examined for potential flaws before being passed on to the poet. Even today, certain strains of literary theory lend themselves to the actual practice of writing more than others. Nobody expects psychoanalytic criticism to be much help, since it concerns what the writer must be unaware of if he or she is to flourish. Hence Freud’s refusal to put Rilke on the couch. But Derrida’s writings are a different matter, as Amit Chaudhuri came to recognise in the course of writing the Oxford doctoral thesis on which this study of D.H. Lawrence’s poetry is based.

Chaudhuri, who has written here a work of both theory and close reading, finds Derrida’s theories congenial not in spite of being a distinguished fiction writer and poet himself, but because of it. Derrida’s notion of discourse as a play of traces, revisions, supplements, erasures, repetitions and the like holds an obvious attraction for someone concerned with writing as material practice and process, rather than as a finished product to be critically inspected. As Chaudhuri might have mentioned in this respect but doesn’t, Derrida is one of the latest in a venerable lineage of anti-philosophers, stretching from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Heidegger to Wittgenstein, Adorno, Benjamin and Richard Rorty, who can say what they mean only by forging a new style of writing, one which dismantles the traditional opposition between literature and philosophy, the aesthetic and the analytic. These thinkers cobble together fable, sermon, anecdote, epigram, joke, speculation and poetic fragment to produce not a theory of modernity, but a modernist way of theorising. As modern art grows more abstract, modern theory waxes more poetic.

What Chaudhuri has noticed is that the language of Lawrence’s poetry behaves much like Derrida’s view of language in general. In some superbly original chapters, crafted with the attunement to verbal detail of a practising poet, he shows that Lawrence’s poems are less framed and finished products than fragments of a larger discourse. Images circulate from one poem to another, one poem flows into another or acts as raw material for it, and the whole process is criss-crossed by resonances, redundancies, repetitions. This provisional, revisionary, open-ended mode of writing, so Chaudhuri argues, undermines the monolithic and hierarchical. There is no master form, no simple linearity or controlling centre. A constant buzz of intertexual allusion subverts any suggestion of pure presence. In Derrida’s (in)famous phrase, there is nothing outside the text – which is not to suggest that the Nottinghamshire coalmines of Lawrence’s boyhood were thinly disguised epics or elegies, but rather that everything in the world, including elements of poems, is ‘textual’, intricately bound up with something else, incapable of standing gloriously, arrogantly alone. For Derrida, the opposite of ‘textual’ is not ‘real’ but ‘falsely autonomous’.

Lawrence, in short, turns out to be a Postmodernist avant la lettre, as well as prefiguring the post-colonial theory in which Chaudhuri takes an understandable interest. Derrida himself is a Sephardic Jew born in colonial Algeria, and Chaudhuri is right to suspect that his notions of language and difference have much to do with this provenance. They reflect political convictions, not just methodological innovations. Yet for all the book’s wonderfully illuminating readings of the poetry, there are serious problems with pressing Lawrence into the service of an ‘anti-Western’, Postmodern or post-colonial aesthetic.

Take the idea of unfinishedness, which Chaudhuri rightly sees as part of Lawrence’s materialist aesthetics. So it is; but like almost everything in Lawrence it is part of his ‘metaphysic’ as well, and the fact that the study ignores this homespun philosophising almost entirely, as it does Lawrence’s fiction, is a major limitation. (As far as the fiction goes, there is no evidence even in the bibliography that Chaudhuri has read anything more than Sons and Lovers, though he surely has.)

Lawrence’s belief in open-endedness or perpetual process may indeed provide an unexpected link to the avant-garde aesthetics of writers such as Brecht. That Chaudhuri spots such affinities places us deeply in his debt, yet he is wrong to see open-endedness as inherently radical. Middle-of-the-road liberals are much enamoured of the provisional and inconclusive, just as some quite right-wing romantics prefer the process to the product. In the wider context of Lawrence’s thought, open-endedness, ironically enough, is both deterministic and triumphalistic, and thus about as far from Postmodern orthodoxy as one can imagine. It is because Chaudhuri attends to form rather than doctrine that he fails to see this.

Things for Lawrence are unfinished because they are all the ephemeral products of what he calls ‘spontaneous-creative life’, a concept which has full-blown metaphysical implications in his thought. ‘Life’ for Lawrence is not the empirical existence of this kangaroo or that gamekeeper; it is an enigmatic, utterly mysterious force which ‘speaks’ us far more than we ‘speak’ it. It is, at root, quite indifferent to human beings, and will have its own sweet way with them whatever their projects and desires. Mellors the gamekeeper makes no attempt to resist his sexual feelings for Connie Chatterley, in the fatalistic assurance that they must inexorably take their course. When Life grabs hold of you in Lawrence, you must simply look on wonderingly, as though it were all happening to somebody else.

At the deepest level, then, Lawrence does not believe in freedom. He is an individualist, but by no means a liberal individualist. His central doctrine is that what we give utterance to is something that lies at the pith of the self, but which is also profoundly alien to it, and which unfolds according to its own inscrutable logic. A man’s self, he remarked, is a law unto itself – not himself. In this heady blend of secularised Protestantism and objective idealism, members of the spiritual elect can act as transmitters of this unfathomable force, and are valuable as persons only on this account; whereas those life-deniers who are unable to lay themselves reverently open to it – perhaps because they are confined to wheelchairs like Clifford Chatterley, or are homosexual like Loerke and Winifred Inger – will be swept aside by its implacable unfurling, cast off as so many empty husks. There is thus no real tragedy in Lawrence, since Life will always triumph even if humankind were to pass away. In fact, Lawrence sometimes suspects that nothing would do Life a greater service.

In this sense, whatever the humane implications of unfinishedness and imperfection, Lawrence is a deeply anti-humanistic writer. It is hard to see what he is doing in Leavis’s The Great Tradition, cheek by jowl with impeccable liberal humanists such as George Eliot and Henry James. Chaudhuri is right to see that this ‘decentring’ of the dominative ego is in one sense to be prized: it belongs with Lawrence’s magnificent sense of what Heidegger calls Gelassenheit, that capacity simply to let things be, to release them into their own stubbornly persisting modes of existence, which the English Romantics knew as wise passiveness or negative capability. To this extent, Lawrence is anti-humanist in all the right ways, virulently opposed to the haughty Enlightenment rationalism of Women in Love’s Gerald Crich. We are stewards rather than proprietors of our selves. The self is not ours to create: it is a gift from some unplumbable darkness, which we should cherish and nurture as tenderly as though it were another being. When he writes of Tom Brangwen in The Rainbow that ‘he knew that he did not belong to himself,’ Lawrence is being ‘religious’ in the best sense of the word, though he hadn’t a scrap of belief in God.

But he is anti-humanist in all the wrong ways, too, and this book is not dialectical enough to see it. When one reacts, one generally overreacts – so that Lawrence’s admirable aversion to capitalist rationality and the bourgeois ego lands him with an old-style vitalist version of the self which can scarcely make room for human consciousness or agency. The will is the Fall, whether it is the will of authoritarian political systems or the will of those who strive to overthrow them. The last thing we are for Lawrence is authors of our own history, which is hardly music to the ears of the Postmodern self-fashioners, let alone good news for those languishing under post-colonial rule. Because we do not create ourselves, we are not fundamentally responsible for what we do. If the self is as radically given as a mountain range, then it is not up to us to decide which of our impulses should be acted out and which should not. The flipside of Gelassenheit is an amoral naturalism.

Chaudhuri sees Lawrence as an anti-essentialist wary of ideas of unity, thereby claiming him once more as a proto-Postmodernist. But this, too, is highly dubious. Lawrence is indeed all about process, exfoliation, trembling instability, emerging out of darkness only to lapse mindlessly into it again. But the thing that does all this emerging and exfoliating is a self as integral and absolute as the cell Ursula Brangwen glimpses down a microscope in The Rainbow. Lawrence has a well-nigh Kierkegaardian sense of the mind-bending mystery of being simply, eternally, oneself. It is just that it is of the essence of Life to keep on the move, just as it belongs to the quick of one’s identity to blossom, wither, then flower again. Lawrence is more Hegelian than Nietzschean in this respect: if he draws in his postwar work on Nietzschean conceptions of power, he jettisons the anti-essentialist implications of the Will to Power. In his eyes, the self is an essence because it is irreducible; as soon get behind the sun, he once observed, as get behind the self.

In any case, Chaudhuri himself, for all his championing of the heterogeneous, talks in a notably homogenising way of the West, as though the whole business from Socrates to Clare Short stood for a single thing. He also occasionally implies that the East is all about nonlinearity, decentring and anti-hierarchism, which would come as a mighty surprise to the Iranian mullahs or Hindu nationalists. Linearity is always to be reproved, a case which would spell the death of any effective politics. The emancipation of India involved a fair bit of linear thought and action. Conversely, the nonlinearity one sees in some post-colonial societies today, where in a devastating timewarp the pre-modern finds itself elbow to elbow with the Postmodern, is not on the whole a condition to be commended. The voguish belief that the non-linear is ipso facto progressive, whereas the linear is inherently dominative, is theoretical cant. Lawrence himself cast one of the finest of all critiques of industrial capitalism in linear form, known as The Rainbow.

What is most admirably ambitious about this study is that it draws on Derrida’s so-called grammatology to evolve a new politics of reading. Chaudhuri is in search of a post-colonial way of approaching a poem, not just an interpretation of its content in post-colonial terms. In fact, he is suspicious of the whole concept of interpretation, which he regards in standard post-structuralist fashion as a form of violence and domination. This, too, is thoroughly Nietzschean – except that Nietzsche thought such acts of hermeneutical power inescapable, whereas some of his Postmodern successors are more uneasy about the matter. They share Nietzsche’s philosophy but reject his politics, a notably difficult trick to pull off. Chaudhuri, like most Postmodernists, tends to use the word ‘power’ pejoratively, as though power were not a splendid thing – if, of course, it is in the right hands for the right purposes. Only those who are not powerless can afford to be so sniffy.

Needless to say, Chaudhuri finds himself interpreting Lawrence all the same, even if he prefers to call it something else. What he calls it is ‘participation’, a term as vague as it is suggestive. Rather than dissecting a finished object, the critic should share in the author’s ‘material shaping’ of his or her discourse, exposing the editings, revisions and transformations which went into the work’s making. This is a provocative notion, if hardly a novel one. Something like it can be found in the work of Jerome McGann. It is also to be found in the Marxist or deconstructive attempt to turn the poetic tapestry round in order to reveal the untidy mess of loose ends, frayed knots and cross-stitching which went into its weaving. But you cannot do any of this without interpretation. Chaudhuri tries to break with conventional interpretation but keeps landing himself back in it: a chapter devoted to intertexuality in Lawrence’s poetry turns out to be a fairly orthodox exercise in the study of literary influences, finding echoes of Macbeth in ‘Snake’ in a way that Christopher Ricks would find wholly unexceptionable.

When he warms to his task, however, Chaudhuri’s commentary becomes genuinely groundbreaking and exciting. He is marvellous at tracing Lawrence’s snippings, pastings and graftings, the cut-outs and cobblings which go to make up the poems, and which the texts leave deliberately exposed. There is an ‘unignorable prodigiousness’ about Lawrence’s use of metaphor, a deliberate decorativeness or redundancy which avoids the expressive and turns spiritual depths into material surfaces. We are shown, brilliantly, how various stages of the artistic process hang unashamedly side by side rather than smoothing themselves into seamless continuity. This is a poet’s criticism, shrewd and deft, full of inside knowledge and technical know-how.

The language Chaudhuri uses to describe all this, though it is unclear whether he is aware of it, is that of the revolutionary avant-gardes of Lawrence’s own day. For them, too, the work of art is a material practice rather than a symbol of the infinite, an inorganic construct rather than an organic unity. Flat, material, fragmented, inexpressive, open-ended in meaning: these are the terms in which Benjamin depicts the revolutionary possibilities of allegory, or in which the Surrealists counter the Expressionists. If Chaudhuri had read more deeply in his author’s work, he might have noted a remarkable contradiction here. For if Lawrence the poet is a constructivist in technique, Lawrence the novelist and thinker is most certainly an expressivist. On the whole, the former is avant-gardist while the latter is Modernist. Generally speaking, avant-gardists are averse to depths (which means that they cannot be superficial either), whereas Modernists revel in them. What links these opposites in Lawrence, perhaps, is his anti-humanism: if the avant-gardists empty out human interiority with their calculated externality, the Modernists, at least of the Lawrentian variety, find something in the depths of the psyche which transcends the human. Chaudhuri teeters on the brink of something very important here; but the limits of his study forbid him from investigating it, or even raising it.

When the book does stray into wider political and theoretical matters, it is at its least impressive. With heroic perversity, it ends by offering us a portrait of Lawrence as the marginal, decentred, anti-hierarchical outsider. He was indeed marginal in some ways, but so, fortunately, was an anti-semite such as Hilaire Belloc. Pace the Postmodernists, there is nothing inherently positive about marginality. But this strident apologist for ‘blood hierarchy’, sadistic dominion, natural aristocracy and the spiritual elite was quite the reverse of anti-hierarchical, whatever might be said of his poetic technique. Chaudhuri offers us a sanitised, politically corrected, anti-Western Lawrence, without even a glance at obnoxiously racist novels like The Plumed Serpent, Kangaroo or the short story ‘The Woman who Rode Away’, with its revelling in the sadistic mutilation of a woman by non-Westerners. If most feminist and Postmodernist critics can see nothing in this appalling genius but sexism, elitism and homophobia, Chaudhuri is so wide-eyed that he can scarcely see these things at all. When one reacts, one usually overreacts.

Where Lawrence is at his most post-structuralist is in his views on human equality. At his most reputable, he rejected the idea of equality because it suggested that individuals were somehow commensurable, a suggestion that offended his keen sense of their uniqueness. This is Nietzsche’s influence at its most healthy. In the presence of another human being, Lawrence claims, he feels neither equality nor inequality, simply difference. Marx was similarly sceptical of the notion of equality, which he considered necessary but based nonetheless on the logic of exchange value. At his least reputable, Lawrence dismissed the idea of equality because he believed that some races and individuals were born to be ruled, which is Nietzsche at his least healthy.

Like Foucault or Deleuze, Lawrence was an extreme romantic libertarian who in the end rejected all social categories as offensive to the pure singularity of selfhood. (Foucault, Deleuze and their ilk add a bizarre twist to this doctrine by rejecting the idea of pure selfhood into the bargain, in which case it is hard to know quite who or what is being oppressed.) This libertarian dogma at least saved Lawrence from an open commitment to Fascism, which seemed to him in the end just another tedious piece of political machinery. It is not easy to imagine him drilling. Yet his quasi-pathological obsession with the proud, single, separated self, aloof from the squalid mess of emotion and involvement, led this splendid scourge of the mechanistic mind to a truly fearful misogyny, a raging contempt for democracy and a hatred of Jews, homosexuals and supposedly inferior races.

This study, then, is as one-sided as it is superb. There is something about Lawrence which makes it extraordinarily hard to tell the whole truth about him. He was the least balanced of major English novelists, and his critics have tended to follow suit. You will hardly find one breath of criticism of Lawrence in this book – though this, admittedly, may be partly because it began life as a doctoral thesis. Postgraduate students tend to be jealously protective of their selected authors, if only to justify spending such an inordinate amount of time thinking about them. Writing a doctoral thesis has much in common with having a baby, events which these days quite often overlap; and you do not insult your chosen writer any more than you insult your own baby. D.H. Lawrence and ‘Difference’ is probably the single best study of Lawrence’s poetry to date. It is a fine book, which if it had expanded its scope and dug rather deeper might even have been even better.