A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Flame Into Being

DH Lawrence

A few weeks ago I reread Anthony Burgess's excellent critical biography of DH Lawrence, Flame into Being. I borrowed the very same copy from our local library as the one I'd read almost twenty years previously. I know this because I recognised my handwriting on the renewal slip I'd filled in after extending the lending period by phone in 1995. As I reread, I found I remembered the book in quite a lot of detail, so much so that I had the strong illusion it must have been only a few years since I first read it. Such are the tricks of memory. Rather frightening, actually.

Regular readers of this blog will know how much I admire DH Lawrence, and how he was a pivotal influence on my youthful education and my emotional, spiritual and literary life. Though he's unfashionable these days, his reputation tainted by misguided, exaggerated slurs concerning his supposed fascism and sexism, I feel he still has much to tell us about the relationship between man and man, woman and woman, and man and woman, and about our interior lives, and about the spiritually important things in life.

I scribbled down a few notes while rereading the book, so here are some random jottings. Some of these are Burgess's words and thoughts, some are my own, and some are a commingling of the two.

Burgess gets to the core of Lawrence, the man and the writer — both indivisible.

Lawrence (along with Woolf, Joyce, Hemingway and Ford Madox Ford) abandoned the conventional novelistic plot and introduced characters of shifting, fragile identities (a more realistic approach, in fact) and brought in aspects of the elemental, the instinctive and the unconscious. The vital thing was visceral conviction, not ratiocination or rational argument; the solar plexus not the cerebral cortex; entity not identity; the dissolution of the self and its fusion with the other, not the iron-clad ego. Fiction became more honest. There was no obligation to like a character; what was important was loving the character, warts and all.

Faults were the spume of identity; reality lay deeper. ANTHONY BURGESS.

In his wild prophecies and subversive proclamations, Lawrence often ran the risk of ridicule; he believed no less than in the complete reform of the individual, of society and of the world — which was the meaning which lay behind his phoenix motif. And you can ignore many of his naive political speculations, which have a shrill and anti-democratic ring. The thing about Lawrence is that you have to consider him and his spontaneous outpourings, the total man and his work, as a whole, in order to discover the sapphires in the mud; and there were a lot of sapphires.

Lawrence believed in the physicality of sex raised to a sacramental level, in the intensity of passion, in the annihilation of the self, in a new covenant with life (as symbolised by the rainbow, connecting heaven and earth, at the end of his eponymous novel) — an idea which he developed in Women in Love, where his characters are close to nature, not merely social beings. Lawrence was always interested in 'naked primitivism', and the 'savage pilgrimage' of his restless wanderings around the world always sought out unindustrialised cultures.

Ezra Pound wrote that the essence of literature and poetry was the charging of language with meaning; that's not meaning in the linguistic and cultural-historical sense, but in the emotional sense. Lawrence agreed with this.

Although, for Lawrence, resonant natural objects such as flowers and fruit were symbols, they were not obvious symbols, and their meanings shifted. He was basically not so much interested in symbols as in essences.

Lawrence witnessed and praised the gorgeousness of the earth, and believed in trying to fulfil the simplest desires in the world: to live, to love and be happy.

Like Ted Hughes after him, Lawrence maintained a strong belief in the necessary and inevitable otherness of animals (ref. his poem Snake.) No sentimentalising or anthropomorphising here. He also recognised the sacredness of animals.

Lawrence is a holistic writer: his (pseudo-) philosophy of life derives from the total output of his numerous poems, novels, essays, short stories, plays, travel writings, letters — not the reverse.

He admired Freud, but thought there was much more to the unconscious than just sex (eg creativity). He admired Jung also, but believed that the unconscious was individual, not collective. He believed in the particular, not the general.

He believed in the multiplicity of separate selfhoods.

Lawrence admitted he was no rigorous scholar, no rigid intellectual — but that he was indebted to scholars and intellectuals. He proceeded by intuition, not logic or methodology.

Aldous Huxley thought that DHL was intensely aware of the mystery of the world, of Wordsworth's  'unknown modes of being', and that this mystery was a numen, a divine awareness of the 'dark presence of otherness beyond the boundaries of man's unconscious mind'. A spiritual world, where there is union with the divine, and which lies outside us, though it's also within us. Otherness is part of us too.

Lawrence stood for Life, as opposed to Art. (Henry James hated Lawrence, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky for their formlessness. Need I say which side I'm on?)

Lawrence taught us, among many other things, that literature is subversive, that sex is important and tender, and that we must have courage in our contradictions. Amen to all of this.

The vast marvel is to be alive . . . DH LAWRENCE.


dritanje said...

wonderful to read your perceptive celebration of Lawrence! Good to be reminded too - that 'literature is subversive' (Picasso also pointed out that art is, and should be!)'Courage in our contradictions' - yes. I was quite sad to hear a younger generation student of Eng Lit say she didn't think much of Lawrence. I thought of all the work it takes to write a novel (any novel!), the inspiration he gave me. And how little effort it takes to be dismissive. Thanks for this, solitary walker.

am said...

"Lawrence taught us, among many other things, that literature is subversive, that sex is important and tender, and that we must have courage in our contradictions. Amen to all of this."

Intriguing that you read from the same library book that you read from so many years ago. D.H. Lawrence made a lasting impression on me that I only realized fully while reading your post this afternoon. I clearly remember reading Lady Chatterley's Lover, Sons and Lovers, and The Rainbow as a young woman. It could well be that my vivid rainbow dream in 2008 which led me to change the name of my blog to Talking 37th Dream with Rainbow had its birth in the fall of 1971 when I read The Rainbow.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your comment, Dritanje.

I've just heard on Radio 4 ('Start the Week') that students of English no longer do Practical Criticism, the detailed analysis of texts, their meanings, ambiguities and contexts. (I doubt whether this includes Oxbridge or Edinburgh, but you never know these days.) Have the lessons — rigorous, but valuable and exciting — of Richards, Empson, Leavis and Ricks been completely abandoned now for soundbites, summaries and multi-media frou-frou?

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, Women in Love, Lady Chatterley... You must have been reading them at the same time as me, Am!

I've never managed to get into many of his less well-known novels, though, as there are some glaring faults and strange obsessions in them. But that's Lawrence all over; you have to take the rough with the smooth. I've been reading some of his letters recently, and they are fantastic, if sometimes slightly messianic and hectoring. Though they can also be heartbreakingly tender and sympathetic. Words and ideas just pour out of him. But he's a bit of a control freak.

Ruth said...

It is comforting to read about that same library book with your signature (not just a date stamp).

Thanks to you I am discover DHL. A bit late, but better LTN.

Thanks for pointing out his strengths, which are interesting to meditate on in their own right.

As for English students not doing practical criticism, I'm sorry to hear that. I wonder if it is true across the UK? (except the ones you've mentioned) I am at the start of a recruitment campaign for the English major at my university. We have seen our numbers drop by half since I began in 2001 (from 1,000 to a little over 500, in a university of 40,000 students. We are pretty certain that the reason is the fear of making a living with such a degree. So we are focusing our attention on the strengths of the major itself, and also connecting the dots to viable jobs. One of the great strengths we're focusing on is critical analysis, something we teach with close reading in the intro class, and develop through the course of study. I hope what you heard on the radio is not true there! It is this sort of close reading of form that develops part of the brain not used when reading only for pleasure. It's a skill a person can apply to any task in life.

OK, I'll get off my academic adviser soapbox. :)

The Solitary Walker said...

I think you are absolutely right on track here, Ruth. In this materialist and careerist age it makes perfect sense — in fact it's essential — to join the dots between clear, intelligent, lateral and analytical literary thinking, and a viable job. And no discipline could provide a better grounding for work and life than an English major (or Modern Languages or Philosophy).

DHL is a beacon, but you'll find he may annoy you just as much as he seduces you! But worth the price in spades.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Robert - like you I love DHL, and this is a strong reminder to read him again. He adds to life!

My daughter is doing English A Level - she is certainly doing practical criticism as part of that (although she favours Social Policy at University).



The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, I remembered you liked DHL, Andy, and he sure does add to life. It's so poignant how he kept on living, and resurrecting, and denying his illness during his last years of suffering from tuberculosis.

I'm not exactly sure how many university courses have dumbed down in this way, so I shouldn't be generalising, I suppose. All I really wanted to say was that practical and analytical criticism, the shaking-out of a text and all its possible meanings and ramifications, is such a worthwhile study, as Ruth says above, and such a good preparation for future life and work. To make the brain stretch like this is brilliant, and a great antidote to texts, blogs, tweets, soundbites, adverts and all the other superficial adjuncts of our daily lives — though everything has its place.

Goat said...

Can you recommend a good one of his to start with? I was turned off him in high school (can't remember which book, maybe Lady C) -- but it's just possible that I've matured since then without realising it.

The Solitary Walker said...

Start with Sons and Lovers...

Wendy said...

I was going to come and ask for a suggestion for a new DHL reader as well - shall look around for Sons and Lovers (I miss used bookstores with English books in them!)...

also, I just replied to your comment on my recent post - I'll borrow Ruth's "better late than never" for that :-)

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, if it were me, Wendy, I'd read Sons and Lovers, and, if you are entranced, The Rainbow followed by Women in Love. Alongside, dip into his poetry, perhaps Birds, Beasts and Flowers.