September 11, 2013

“Strangest of All Strange Companions” — D.H. Lawrence and September 11

review dh awrenceDavid Herbert Lawrence was born on this day, September 11, 1885, in the mining town of Eastwood, near Nottingham. He died March 2, 1930, some seven decades before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

With most writers, you would note the birthday coincidence and move on, but that’s not easily done with Lawrence. Writing in 1956, his sometime friend John Middleton Murray said, “Lawrence was alone in the depth of his prescience of the crisis of humanity which has developed since his death.” In fact, Lawrence wrote and thought so freely and fiercely about so many issues that it doesn’t take much looking to find passages that could be used to describe, among other things, the political reality stateside before and after 9/11, as in this sentence from Part IV of Apocalypse, his last work: “They will only listen to the call of mediocrity wielding the insentient bullying power of mediocrity: which is evil. Hence the success of painfully inferior and even base politicians.”

A few sentences later he seems to be casting his line in the direction of the Bush administration’s coded terror alerts: “Society consists of a mass of weak individuals trying to protect themselves, out of fear, from every possible imaginary evil, and, of course, by their very fear, bringing the evil into being.” However horrifically un-imaginary September 11 was, it brought into being war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Raw Genius

No other writer I can think of so thoroughly saturates the page with his personality. Lawrence is prickly, rude, boorish, and vindictive, arrogantly declaiming about everything under the sun and moon because everything fires him up, pulls at him, agitates, fascinates, and challenges him. His is a force of raw genius like an engine plowing through and scattering to the wind everything in its path.

Who else but Lawrence would begin a poem with a chip on his shoulder? “You tell me I am wrong?/Who are you, who is anybody to tell me I am wrong?/I am not wrong.” What’s the poem about? A pomegranate. Who’s he arguing with? Someone who has “forgotten the pomegranate-trees in flower, /Oh so red, and such a lot of them.” Or he could very well be addressing the pomegranate itself, holding it in one hand like Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull. What does Lawrence see in the pomegranate? The Doges of Venice, for a start, and “crowns of spiked green metal/Actually growing,” and “if you dare, the fissure!” But wait: “Do you mean to tell me you will see no fissure?/Do you prefer to look on the plain side?” By now, you’re asking yourself “What fissure? What’s he on about?” No matter. It’s all enroute to the “setting suns” and “drops of dawn” when the “end cracks open with the beginning:/Rosy, tender, glittering within the fissure” and the closing couplet: “For my part, I prefer my heart to be broken,/It is so lovely, dawn-kaleidoscopic within the crack.”

If Lawrence had witnessed the nightmare of 9/11, he might have been one of those chastised for daring to see a beauty in it beyond the loss of life, something actually accomplished in March of 2002 when the towers were resurrected in the form of two soaring shafts of blue light, almost as if the planners of the spectacle were borrowing ideas from one of Lawrence’s poems about blueness. The thought behind that magnificent gesture might also be read into Lawrence’s introduction to Fantasia of the Unconscious, where “The living live and then die,” passing away “as we know, to dust and to oxygen and nitrogen” and perhaps “direct into life itself … direct into the living.”

In Your Face

“Peach,” another poem from Lawrence’s collection Birds, Beasts, and Flowers, begins, “Would you like to throw a stone at me?/Here, take all that’s left of my peach.” As the poem ends, after a battery of nagging questions, the poet supposes, perhaps rightly by then, that “you would like to throw something at me,” and says, “Here, you can have my peach stone.” It’s poetry in-your-face, he’s standing in front of you, practically stepping on your toes, looking you in the eye as he dares you to throw the peach stone. But he’s standing too close, there’s no room, and he won’t back up. Lawrence never backs up.

The next poem in the series, “Medlars and Sorb-Apples,” moves from the “morbid” taste (“I love you, rotten, delicious rottenness”) to the Orphic Underworld, taking you “down the strange lanes of hell, more and more intensely alone,/The fibres of the heart parting one after the other,” as the soul continues “ever more vividly embodied/Like a flame blown whiter and whiter/In a deeper and deeper darkness.”

In the arrogance of his greatness (or the greatness of his arrogance), Lawrence almost makes it possible to imagine he’s envisioning the shadow of a future event in which thousands could die in the same moment, “Each soul departing with its own isolation/Strangest of all strange companions,/And best.”

Doing the Dishes 

Lawrence’s friend Cynthia Asquith once said that he could make washing dishes an adventure. It’s an appealing thought, standing side by side with Lorenzo, he with his sleeves rolled up doing the scrubbing, talking your ear off while you do the drying. In the Lawrentian overflow there’s a clarity to everything, the cups and saucers gleaming like porcelain hallucinations. Suppose he spots a lady bug on the window sill directly in front of you, the window being open to the summer night (he always had to have the windows open), he would tell you more than you ever knew or wanted to know about that insect before using it to weave a whimsical account of the Creation like the one in his introduction to Fantasia of the Unconscious (“In the very beginning of all things, time and space and cosmos and being, in the beginning of all these was a little living creature”).

A Period of Crisis

In his introduction to the 1919 edition of Women in Love, Lawrence speaks of being “in a period of crisis” where “every man who is acutely alive is acutely wrestling with his own soul. The people that can bring forth the new passion, the new idea, this people will endure. Those others, that fix themselves in the old idea will perish with the new life strangled unborn within them. Men must speak out to one another.” Tweak the phrasing a bit and it sounds like politics U.S.A. in 2013.

But the most interesting thing in the introduction is when Lawrence confronts critics who complain about his free-swinging, repetitive rhetoric. After noting how “fault is often found with the continual, slightly modified repetition,” he resists throwing peach stones and simply points out that his style “is natural to the author; and that every natural crisis in emotion or passion or understanding comes from this pulsing, frictional to-and-fro which works up to culmination.” The introduction is dated 12 September 1919.

Having just watched the opening scenes of Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969), I can appreciate how well cast and costumed are Gudrun and Ursula (Glenda Jackson and Jennie Linden) and Gerald and Rupert (Oliver Reed and Alan Bates), not to mention Hermione (Eleanor Bron). There’s even something like a credible, unforced Lawrentian undercurrent in play — until Russell begins attacking the audience with the cinematic equivalent of purple prose. Lawrence at his most excessive is hard enough to take, but put Lawrence and Russell together in the same building and it’s time to head for the exits.

Working Class Hero

In Ford Madox Ford’s piece on Lawrence in Portraits from Life (1937), he admits feeling “a certain trepidation” as he awaited his first meeting with the then-unknown young writer. “If he was really the son of a working coal-miner,” the high-born Ford wonders, “how exactly was I to approach him in conversation? Might he not, for instance, call me ‘Sir’ — and wouldn’t it cause pain and confusion to stop him doing so? …. A working man was so unfamiliar a proposition that I really did not know how to bring it off.”

The comic potential of Ford’s expectations colliding with the reality is worthy of a Monty Python sketch. Lawrence’s first words as he walked into the office of the journal Ford edited were airily dismissive: “This isn’t my idea, Sir, of an editor’s office.” Needless to say, the coal miner’s son’s “Sir” was not the one Ford was contemplating. And as Ford first saw him, before a word was spoken, the “russet-haired” Lawrence’s appearance had nothing to do with either officers, authors, or working men: “And suddenly, leaning against the wall beside the doorway, there was, bewilderingly … a fox. A fox going to make a raid on the hen-roost before him.”

Even when he’s attempting to describe Lawrence’s writing, Ford keeps placing him in the wild, because “Nottingham, for all its mining suburbs, was really in and of the country” and the “nature passages of Lawrence run like fire through his books …. So that at times when you read him you have the sense that there really was to him a side that was supernatural.”

Birthday Month

Presumably the almost month-long celebration of Lawrence’s birthday (September 6-24) in and around his birthplace, Eastwood, will pause on September 11 long enough to remember the 12th anniversary of the attacks. There will be a September 11 birthday lecture as well, “D.H. Lawrence as a Philosophical Novelist.” The emphasis this year is on the centenary of one of his best-known works, Sons and Lovers. There are Sons and Lovers country walks, museum tours, photo scavenger hunts, and of course a showing of the film.

It took his hometown a long time to accept the author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and a long time to forgive him for portraying townspeople (sometimes under their real names) in his work. Now there’s a Lawrence museum, a White Peacock Cafe (after his first novel), and a Phoenix snooker hall. You can see photos and such on the Lawrence Heritage facebook page